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Cougar Basketball Notebook: Development of players, young and old, tells you something about Kent and staff

CHARLES CALLISON is not the same ballplayer who arrived at WSU as a JC transfer 18 months ago. He’s considerably better. That holds true for Conor Clifford as well. Ike Iroegbu has taken his game to another level in the last month. And Josh Hawkinson, we all know, went from a nondescript big at the end of the bench as a freshman to one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in Pac-12 history.

So what’s the point?

Just this: Ernie Kent and his staff of Greg Graham, Silvey Dominguez and Curtis Allen are teachers. They are coaches in the truest sense of the word, because they develop guys.

Their players have gotten better under their tutelage.

In fact, get a load of this stat:

Four different Cougars (Hawkinson, Callison, Clifford and freshman Malachi Flynn) have each scored 25 points or more in at least one game this season. If you would have guessed a 25-plus point night for any of them when they first arrived on campus you’d have been considered delusional.

Yes, some schools will recruit 4- and 5-star prospects – even putting their dads and AAU coaches on staff to make sure it happens -- and then roll the ball out with a little bit of guidance and let the chips fall where they may.

And WSU has never been that school.

Which means coaches who teach, coaches who truly develop their players, are the ones who are going to succeed at WSU.

Naysayers will complain about Kent & Co. not recruiting at the level of Washington, USC, etc. etc. And I get that.  But I also believe the combination of early playing time, Kent’s focus on both the student and the athlete part of the college equation, and the family atmosphere in Pullman eventually will help land some of those instant-difference-maker-types like Mark Hendrickson and Don Collins.  I believe he may have one already in the form of Flynn, a true freshman.

But the key to success in WSU basketball – a program with as sobering a record as any major school over the last 75 years – is going to be player development. The Bennetts are Exhibit A in that regard. Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes – three guys who helped power the Cougs to a Sweet 16 battle on North Carolina’s home turf -- stand among the greatest testaments to the impact of coaches who are teachers of the game.

Regardless of the Cougars' record over their last seven regular season games and in the Pac-12 tournament, seeing the  difference in the way Callison, Clifford, Iroegbu and Hawkinson are playing speaks highly of Kent and his staff.

And let's talk a little more about Flynn. Except for Kent, no major-conference coach in the nation thought he was good enough to compete. Look at how he has developed over the course of this season under Kent. Flynn is one of the most dynamic freshmen in the West and one of the nation’s fast-rising point guards.

Success at WSU in hoops is going to take time.  Patience -- as George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and the Bennetts can attest -- is critical. What we're seeing with individual player development adds grist to the idea Kent is the right man for the job.

Moreover, here’s where that development piece of the puzzle gets interesting. Kent has alluded to it at various times this season and Iroegbu talked about it in a post-game radio interview several weeks ago: the quality of the Cougar players who are redshirting this season is excellent.

Athletic director Bill Moos may have gone a bit overboard on the topic during his radio show with KXLY’s Derek Deis yesterday when he stated, “Our scout team is beating the team that we’re watching in Beasley, consistently, in practice. So for our Cougar fans and basketball fans, the future is bright. And we’re going to get some more wins this season, I’m confident of that … We’re fun to watch. You can’t count us out. I know Ernie wishes we had a little more firepower off the bench. But when you look down that bench, there are a couple guys that are redshirted who could be right in the thick of things for a variety of reasons.”

Hyperbole aside, we do know that 6-3, 185-pound guard Milan Acquaah would be playing major minutes right now were it not for the knee injury that shelved him for much of the summer and fall. He has been a monster in practice – Iroegbu talked about it earlier this season -- and he should be a huge factor next year.

Then there’s 6-9, 200-pound forward Arinze Chidom and 6-3, 183-pound guard Jamar Ergas. Chidom’s development has been dramatic enough that he sometimes looks unstoppable in practice. Keep him on a Cowgill diet with serious weight training, turn those flashes into more consistency, and the results could be special. Ergas, meanwhile, is so athletic that Kent has said he may be the best freshmen athlete on the West Coast, he just needs more time in the gym.

Throw Jeff Pollard – who, by the way, has been playing solid minutes of late -- onto the scout team discussion and you can see why Moos dares say the scouts can compete with the regulars.

NOTABLE NOTE: All five WSU freshmen (Flynn, Acquaah, Chidom, Ergas and Pollard) achieved a 3.00 or better GPA through summer school and the fall semester.

ON THE ROAD THIS WEEK: The Cougars head to the Rockies after being swept by UCLA and USC last week. WSU (11-12, 4-7) will be at Utah (15-8, 6-5) on Thursday (6 pm Pacific/Pac-12 Networks) and at Colorado (13-11, 3-8) on Sunday (5:30 pm Pacific/ESPNU). In meetings earlier this season in Pullman, the Utes defeated the Cougs 88-47 and the Cougs downed the Buffs 91-89 in overtime.

RECRUITING ROUND UP: The regular signing period for the 2017 cycle begins on April 12. The Cougars inked two players – Trinity JC teammates Kwinton Hinson (6-4 wing) and Davante Cooper (6-11 center) – in the early signing period back in November, which means they have three scholarships slots open for April.  Look for two of those spots to go to forward/center types and one to a wing who can shoot. 

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