CONOR CLIFFORD (USA Today Sports/James Snook)

Summer never looked so good to Washington State basketball coach Ernie Kent (part 2 of 2-part series)

CONOR CLIFFORD, Washington State’s 7-foot center who arrived on campus overweight last year, is now in the best shape of his life, Cougar basketball coach Ernie Kent tells The “new and improved” Clifford is one of the many reasons why Kent envisions a turnaround for the Cougars this season.

Clifford now checks in at 265. But when it comes to weighty developments, there is perhaps nothing more significant than the fact the Cougars will be putting in a “mini season” this summer thanks to their August tour to Italy.

Here is Part II of our wide-ranging conversation with the Cougars’ head man last week … This past season you went 1-17 in conference games, but a deeper look at the results suggests the issue was more isolated than systemic – namely the inability to close down the stretch and/or avoid inexplicable dry runs that proved the margin of difference. But how do you get over that hump and are there psychological hurdles to be cleared after such a down year.

ERNIE KENT: There’s no question we had several games where we just didn’t finish, games where we missed critical free throws to win games. We missed an early window to gain ground with our confidence. There were other opportunities and I’m proud of the fact our guys never stopped working, but the plain fact is that we didn’t get it done.

I will tell you that 1-17, for players, coaches and fans is tough on all of us. It’s something that keeps me awake at nights because I want to get this done so badly for the fans. For all of us, last season really fuels our desire to get back on the court and start working. You asked about clearing the psychological hurdle – this summer is going to be big for us in that regard. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s going to be huge for the development of this team and program. Walk through that a bit – what this summer will look like for the team and why it’s so critical.

ERNIE KENT:  We’ll be going on an international tour to Northern Italy for five and possibly six games. You’re only allowed to do these once every four years and the timing couldn’t be better for us. Here’s why: In addition to the game experience and the bonding that takes place on a trip like that, we get 10 days to practice for it. These practices are in addition to the normal, individual workouts that take place over the summer. And there are no limits to what you can do in those 10 days – you can practice two or three times each day if you want. Coupled with the tour itself, this summer basically will be a mini season for us.

Being able to compete again will be a major boost to the psyche. And for our new players, this will accelerate their transition to the Pac-12 because we’re going to be playing some mature, physical clubs over there. We lost some veteran players off last year’s team and this trip will allow our young guys to gain ground before the season begins.

The practicing, the bonding, the competition, the adjustments that can be made -- this will be very significant for us when the season arrives. Teams that have these opportunities really have a chance to come back with a lot more confidence. One of the prime ingredients in team confidence is team chemistry. Talk a bit about that, both past and future.

ERNIE KENT:  We need to get our chemistry back where it belongs. We had a down year last season and a lot of change this offseason. This summer trip will allow us to put away uncertainty and get everybody on the right page, feeling good.

This is an important transition year for the program as we fully embrace the high motor, high feel, high skill profile we want to bring to the court each night. We must elevate our team chemistry to bring it all together and I have no doubt whatsoever that we will. Talk about the new guys coming in – when they arrive, what they bring to the program, and if you plan to fill your last two scholarship slots in addition to the four already filled in this new class.

ERNIE KENT: We have four players signed and all four will be here to start summer school on June 19th. If we find the pieces that we’re looking for, we’ll fill out those final two spots. Otherwise, we’ll hold them till next year …

In terms of the four players we’ve signed so far, I can say that as a group I would characterize them this way: they’re skilled and they possess an excellent feel for the game. Briefly break down each one of them.

ERNIE KENT:  In no particular order …

Milan Acquaah (6-2 point guard/Los Angeles): He is a true point guard that has an outstanding skill set. He can score by attacking the basket, he shoots the 3, and has a very strong body already for a freshman. I’m looking for great things out of him this season.

Malachi Flynn (6-1 point guard/Tacoma): Anytime you are the best player in your state, any state, it tells you how special you are. He is a very gifted basketball player -- a tremendous shooter and very driven to be successful. He just plays hard. One of the things we need to do is get him bigger and stronger and that process is already underway. He will have the ability to play multiple positions.\

I envision Milan and Malachi spending a fair amount of time on the court at the same time.

Jamar Ergas (6-3 forward/Toronto): He will be one of the best athletes among incoming freshmen in the entire country. But in addition to the athletic ability, he has a motor and shooting skills. His upside is tremendous.

Jeff Pollard (6-8 forward/Bountiful, Utah): Jeff is a very hard-working basketball player – a very solid rebounder who can score, defend and play with a high IQ and motor.

Collectively, these four make us a faster, better-shooting team. Let’s turn to the returning players – briefly break down where each of them stands right now.

ERNIE KENT:  I’ll start with Josh (Hawkinson) and Ike (Iroegbu) -- two seniors who have started a lot of games for Washington State University. Excellent team leaders and our two best players. I’m expecting outstanding seasons from them and I think the trip overseas will be significant for them … They’re working hard right now. They’re going to be ready. They know the league, they know what it takes to be successful in this conference – their leadership in practice and on the floor (in games) will set the tone for our young student-athletes.

Conor Clifford: You will see a new and improved Conor Clifford this season. He’s down to 265 pounds and looking great. Offensively, he could be an unstoppable force inside. He can score with both hands and our skill set around him will make him more effective. And with better conditioning, his defense will improve. Plus, the conference is losing a lot of notable talent in the post – off the top, Tarczewski and Anderson at Arizona, Scott at Colorado, Parker at UCLA, Poetl at Utah and Jacobsen at ASU – while Conor is coming into his own. He’s now used to the speed of the game. He came on strong down the stretch last season and he was a terror over the spring.

Charles Callison and Derrien King: JC transfers are sometimes like freshmen in that that they need a year to get comfortable. I think the quality of the Pac-12 shell-shocked them a bit last season and this conference will make you pay if you’re not on your game and not playing with confidence. That transition is behind them now. They are now ready to battle in this conference.

Viont'e Daniels and Robert Franks: Typically, the biggest improvement with players is between their freshman and sophomores years and that’s what I see with them. They both had great springs. They will be coming back much better basketball players. Both can score and now they’re really starting to figure things out overall.

One other thing I’d like to note about our returning players is that all four seniors are on track to graduate: Josh this summer, Ike, Conor and Charles next June. I know you don’t like to designate one player as “the” point guard because all your guards bring the ball up court at times. But with the additions of Acquaah and Flynn, does that mean you now have the ability to focus Iroegbu and Callison at the 2 or 3 spots?

ERNIE KENT:  Let me start by saying when you have four or five players on the court who can take a rebound and not have to make the outlet pass, but can bring the ball right down the court, it’s hard for defenses to match up. That’s the profile of this team.

But yes, with Acquaah and Flynn, you can expect to see Ike not only at the 2 or the 3, but sometimes the 4, with Josh at the stretch-4. That would put five 3-point shooters on the floor at once, all with skill and speed. Ike’s body is strong enough that with the right matchup, he can play against a 4 who is 6-7. The question for the other team is whether that 6-7 guy can keep up with Ike. Let’s talk about that. At Oregon you didn’t shy away from going with four guards and a stretch-4 on the court at the same time. Looking at your roster right now, with so many players who can get up and down, how much of that might we see in the Cougars’ future?

ERNIE KENT:  You’re definitely going to see that. As we find our niche against the opponents in this conference, we believe it is speed and shooting. We will continue to gear our recruiting that way, to speed up the game, spread the floor, run more, press more and create more scoring opportunities, which generates excitement for fans.

That is one difference you’ll see between this coming season and last season is we’re going to play at a faster pace. That will create scoring opportunities and opportunities to get to the line more because we’ll be attacking the rim. Speeding the game up gets you to the line more. You have talked many times about the importance of fans in the stands helping energize the team. For this coming season, the athletic department has dropped ticket prices, and the move to seat people mostly in the lower bowl should help bring energy to the building. Those are incentives for fans to come to games. But for those dissuaded by last year’s 9-22 record, what’s your sales pitch to get them into Beasley?

ERNIE KENT:  Everybody in the Pac-12 has a home-court advantage and we’re still developing ours. The student body needs to know they can make a difference in the outcome of games …  Building attendance requires good marketing, a winning product and old fashioned school spirit.

My pitch to all Cougs is this: we have three returning starters who are proven scorers, we have an excellent recruiting class coming in, we’re going to grow individually and as a team in major ways this summer, and we’re going to play an exciting brand of basketball – we need you to be part of it, you can make a difference on game day.

I remember coming in here as a player in the 1970s, nobody wanted to play in Pullman. Same thing during the big years with Weaver, Low and that crew. We want opponents to hate coming to Pullman. That energy in the stands feeds our defense, feeds our confidence and makes the opponent very uncomfortable. It’s self-reinforcing. Where does the schedule stand right now?

ERNIE KENT:  It’s nearly complete. It will get us ready for the grueling Pac-12 race. Going to the Virgin Islands in November for the Paradise Jam, where we’ll open with Creighton, is an excellent opportunity.

We’re also in the process of finalizing details to bring the Cougars to our loyal fans in the Tri-Cities for a game against Central Washington at the Toyota Center in Kennewick in November.

And we’re getting close to an agreement on a home-and-home deal with one of the outstanding programs in the Big 12. We would travel there this season and they would play us in Spokane next season. (Editor’s note: WSU and Kansas State announced the deal yesterday -- several days after this interview took place.) Is the Spokane piece of that in whole or part due to the fact Gonzaga bailed on the long-running series with WSU?

ERNIE KENT:  That’s right. We have so many great fans in Spokane and the Gonzaga series allowed us to get up there every other year. I think it’s a shame Gonzaga elected to cancel the series. It was good for fans and good for basketball generally in our region. But we’re going to try to bring big-name opponents to Spokane every other year. Earlier you mentioned Clifford’s improved conditioning helping him on defense. Generally speaking, his defense last season didn’t conjure images of David Robinson or Hakeem Olajuwon. How are you addressing post defense this offseason?

ERNIE KENT:  We will need to play with more stunting on the defensive end of the floor. For example, we’ll trap in the post and show more zone looks to give Conor some help on the defensive end. Between Junior Longrus, Brett Boese, Que Johnson and Valentine Izundu, you have about 65 minutes of playing time per game to replace. Can you give me a rough idea how those minutes might be divvied up?

ERNIE KENT:  You have 200 minutes of playing time per game – 40 minutes times five positions – and 40 is too much for any one guy, so we’re looking for eight to ten players to divide the 200 minutes. Josh and Ike will go as much as they can, between 30 and 35 minutes a game. With our fast pace, Conor is probably going to be around 25 minutes. So now we’re at 100, 115 minutes to be divided by the other slots.

This summer will go a long toward determining how we will fill those slots. We’ll see how the new guys adjust and adapt and how we need to tweak minutes and roles as we head toward the season. Final question -- why should Cougar fans be optimistic about the upcoming season?

ERNIE KENT:  This program is going in the right direction. I know last year was tough. The second year is always the hardest and now we head into Year Three with three proven players and leaders at the top in Ike, Josh and Conor, a lot of exciting young players, and a summer season that is going to allow us to take a giant leap forward. I promise you I will not rest, our staff will not rest, and our players will not rest, until Washington State is a consistent contender in the best league in the nation.

IN CASE YOU MISSED PART I IN THE SERIES: Ernie Kent assesses college ball and WSU's place in it

JOSH HAWKINSON (USA Today Sports/James Snook)

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