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Kent & Leach: What a difference a year makes

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes. Last February the crimson faithful were grumbling about Mike Leach and marveling at how Ernie Kent was able to squeeze so much out of so modest a roster.

Today, Mike Leach nearly walks on water following the thrill of a 9-4 season and the apathy toward the men’s basketball program appears to be nearing late-Kevin Eastman/entire-Paul Graham era levels.

This malaise around WSU hoops isn't a simple matter. It's multifaceted:

     1.    With DaVonte Lacy’s graduation and a roster full of new players, no objective fan should have expected the Cougars to exceed last season’s seven Pac-12 wins, but the utter lack of visible improvement since this season began is striking.

     2.    Valentine Izundu’s foot injury coincided with the start of Pac-12 play and, as Kent has noted, compromised the defense, no doubt making the Cougars’ 1-10 Pac-12 record look worse than the team is.

     3.    Kent’s high-energy, positive demeanor helped fuel the excitement about the team’s over-achieving ways last season. But in this meltdown of a season, his continued enthusiasm is ringing hollow with fans. Case in point: days before the humiliating 33-point loss to UCLA on Jan. 30, Kent was saying the team was “so close” to turning the corner and becoming a factor in the Pac-12 race.

     4.    This is truly the knock-out blow: Kent was hired because of his recruiting ability and so far, through three classes and more than a dozen players signed, the Cougar faithful are getting restless with the fact WSU is still mostly competing for players with the Portlands, San Jose States, Southern Utahs and Cal-Fullertons of the world.

Kent gets no favors through it all from social media and the 24/7 news cycle. Outstanding Cougar coaches of the past — Marv Harshman, George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and the Bennetts — all started out with multiple rocky seasons before breaking through and the boo birds were pretty well contained.

Nowadays, every boo bird has a megaphone sitting a few keystrokes away, and with wall-to-wall TV coverage, every miscue on the court can be dissected nonstop.

Barring a turnaround of truly historic measure, the Cougars will limp (literally, as it turns out, with Josh Hawkinson and Conor Clifford nursing bum ankles) to the finish line this season.

And then Kent will begin working toward the season his first two have been pointing to all along: 2016-17, when (absent unexpected attrition) he’ll have seven seniors and two juniors on the roster.

In the world of college basketball, that’s as much veteran experience and leadership as you’ll ever find.

Next year is THE year for Ernie Kent.

The thinking, from this chair, is that a great season would supercharge recruiting and set the program on course for consistent success courtesy of a large, talented new recruiting class. Of course, many of the best players for the next recruiting cycle will be claimed in the early signing period this coming November, thus putting huge expectations on a windfall — a windfall that almost certainly can only be fueled by a great 2016-17 campaign — in the regular signing period in April 2017.

That fanciful forecast may actually be contributing to the current fan doldrums.

Regardless, it’s important to understand why Kent should be given time to build.

WSU and the sport of basketball have had an uneasy relationship over the last 80 years or so. There have been some highly memorable successes, but two of the things prospective players are looking for most are TRADITION (the Cougs last won a conference title in 1941 and have just six total NCAA Tourney bids) and NBA CRED (Klay Thompson and Aron Baynes help but until they came along the last two NBA regulars from WSU were James Donaldson and Craig Ehlo of the 70s and 80s).

You don’t overcome a humbling history like that overnight.

The other key piece of the recruiting puzzle -- facilities. WSU’s are fine for now and certainly better than what Kent was recruiting to during his time at Oregon, but over the mid term this will need to be addressed in a major way.

The old refrain, “what a difference a year makes,” is how I began this column about the woes of the current hoops season. If next February I begin another basketball column with the same refrain, you’ll know that Ernie Kent’s big bet on 2016-17 paid off. If not, the volume of the boo birds will be ear piercing.


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