Shot-blocking Cougar center Valentine Izundu returned to the court Tuesday but Ernie Kent says status uncertain

PULLMAN — Shot-blocking Washington State center Valentine Izundu, out with a foot injury for five straight games and all but one minute of a sixth, returned to practice Tuesday. But Cougar coach Ernie Kent told reporters it’s wait-and-see whether Izundu plays this week at USC and UCLA.

The Cougars (9-10/1-6) battle the Trojans (15-5/4-3) Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Galen Center and then square off at 4 p.m. Saturday against the Bruins (12-8/3-4) in Pauley Pavilion. Both games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

Kent has never disclosed the details of Izundu’s injury, beyond swelling in his foot, but one thing has been crystal clear since the 7-footer went down: the Cougar defense, while far from impressive to begin with, isn’t the same.

The Cougars are surrendering an average of 88 points per game without Izundu in the lineup compared with 70.9 in games in which he did play. Of course, the 88 all has come against Pac-12 competition while much of the 70.9 was compiled against easier foe, but the Cougars’ inability to protect the rim in Izundu’s absence has been glaring.

WSU is 0-5 without him in the lineup and 9-5 with him.

Prior to his injury, Izundu ranked third in the Pac-12 and in the top 15 nationally for blocks per game, at 2.7 — a stat that only hints at how many shots he altered per game.

How Izundu’s foot responds in practice, Kent said Tuesday, will determine whether he’ll have a role in trying to avenge the Cougars’ 90-77 loss to USC in Pullman on Jan. 1.

“USC kind of pounded us, so I’m looking forward to getting after them early,” Cougar freshman forward Robert “Robo” Franks told reporters Tuesday.

Franks didn’t play in that game or the subsequent two but has averaged double digits over the last four.

“The biggest things are energy and effort,” he said. “When we were in Pullman against USC we had no energy and no effort in the first half. Then we came out with energy in the second half, but it was too little too late for a comeback.”

WSU trailed at the half 54-37 in that one.

Cougar junior guard Ike Iroegbu said Tuesday that familiarity alone will be a big help this time around.

“We know their personnel now, better than we did the first time we played USC,” he said. “You see them on film, but it’s different when you’re on the court, so now we know what to expect a little better than we did before the first game.”

Kent said he’s “looking forward to seeing how we respond” now that the Cougars know what to expect athletically and from an effort standpoint.

KENT ROLLED OUT THE COUGARS’ eighth-different starting lineup of the season this past Saturday in a 75-70 loss to Colorado. Senior Brett Boese and sophomore Ny Redding got the nod alongside regulars Iroegbu, Josh Hawkinson and Junior Longrus.

Redding replaced Charles Callison, who had started 17 of the 18 games prior to that one and Boese replaced fourth-year junior Que Johnson.

Kent said the move was made to increase communication on defense and give the program’s six newcomers a chance to “see how hard they need to play.”

“I think when you have new players … sometimes they’re better coming off the bench,” he said. “Just give them a few minutes to look at and get a feel for what an opponent looks like.”

Notable Notes:

  • Iroegbu said his family will journey from their home Sacramento to watch the two games in Los Angeles.
  • Spero Dedes (play-by-play) and Mike Montgomery (color analyst) will be on the call Thursday for the Pac-12 Networks.
  • Last season in the only meeting between WSU and USC, the Cougars won 70-66 in Los Angeles.
  • WSU won its first meeting with UCLA this season, 85-78 in Pullman on Jan. 3, but history says a sweep will be a tall order.  WSU has won at UCLA just three times in history, with the Bruins holding a 55-3 advantage at home. WSU’s three wins at UCLA came Feb. 21, 2009, Feb. 5, 2004 and Jan. 26, 1980
  • Hawkinson leads the Pac-12 and is fifth in the nation with 14 double-doubles this season.

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