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Cougar Hoops Notebook: With two good PGs in place, the future at WSU stands in the post

WERE IT NOT FOR three toe stubs in the non-conference portion of this college basketball season, Ernie Kent’s 12-15 Cougars currently would be gunning for a berth in the NIT or CBI. That doesn’t diminish the progress the Cougs have made this season. They have good shot at a sixth conference win Sunday evening at home against Washington and they've demonstrated the ability (albeit inconsistently) to hang with anyone in the league for long stretches.

The key to the Cougars taking the next step -- to elevating themselves into the top six in the conference -- can be found in one place: the post.

Dissect the Cougars’ Pac-12 losses this season and more times than not you’ll find highly athletic big men in opposing jerseys doing mortal damage.

WSU doesn't have that type of talent down low and they need it desperately going forward.

Josh Hawkinson is a marvel in many ways, as his double-double record attests, and Conor Clifford possesses deft touch on the offensive end with both hands, but neither is athletic enough to be a force like other big men around the league. Lauri Markkanen (Arizona), Ivan Rabb (Cal), T.J. Leaf  (UCLA) and Chris Boucher (Oregon) – all of whom figure notably in the upcoming NBA draft -- are the types of highly athletic bigs that stand between WSU and the upper division. David Collette (Utah), Bennie Boatwright (USC) and Thomas Welsh (UCLA) aren't half bad dealing out of the post either.

In this outstanding article in the Spokesman-Review, Jacob Thorpe explained how the future of Cougar basketball will be built around freshman Malachi Flynn (pictured above) and redshirting freshman Milan Acquaah. Kent has said the two remind him of his legendary PGs at Oregon: Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks. Great point guards were the cornerstones of Kent's previous successes at St. Mary’s and Oregon. Writes Thorpe:

In Kent’s system the point guard has to be a threat to score. But while the ability to break down the defense or score off a pick-and-roll is important, what makes everything work is the point guard being willing to change roles, to pass the ball and then cut and curl and find open spaces for 3-pointers

Flynn, who has been a revelation on the court this season, and Acquaah, who has been stellar in practice since returning from summer knee surgery, appear to have that pieces of the rebuilding covered.

Stout wings who can shoot from outside are another building block and the Cougars look to have two in redshirting freshman Arinze Chidom and incoming JC transfer Kwinton Hinson. Expect a third to enter the mix when all is said and done on this recruiting cycle.

Which brings me to the post.

Hawkinson and Clifford are graduating, Robert Franks has the potential in body and game to be very good, incoming 7-footer Davonte Cooper owns a big wingspan and can get up and down the court, and Jeff Pollard is solid and scrappy off the bench. But the Cougars need THE GUY at the 4 or 5 who can make the type of difference in a game that you see among the teams in the upper-half of the conference.

With Flynn and Acquaah entering their primes, there really isn’t  time to invest in a multi-year project like a James Donaldson or a transfer who must sit out a year. Kent has three spots open in his 2017 recruiting class and he needs to land one difference maker in the post who can make hay in 2017-18. Whether a high school star, JC standout or fifth-year transfer doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Cougs land a 4 or 5 who helps maximize the skills of Flynn and Acquaah while bringing heat at both ends of the court like an Ivan Rabb or Chris Boucher.

I’ve placed a number of calls throughout the hoops recruiting world to get a handle on some of the prospects Kent is trying to woo and will hopefully have something to report sooner than later.

The signing period begins April 12 and runs to May 17.

Which brings me to a topic I raised last summer in this story.

Is it time for Washington State to get into the “package deal” business? In other words, to land a head-turning talent should Kent open up an assistant coaching slot for the parent or coach of a star player? You see it happening all over college hoops, including right here in the Pac-12.

I know, it feels less than wholesome. But I'm starting to feel like it could become necessary -- if that’s what it takes to compete in this day and age, and everyone else is doing it, how do the Cougs NOT take the plunge if the personalities and talent match up right?

Kent is a good teacher, and a coach with the energy and enthusiasm to succeed in Pullman. If anyone can convince a head turner to etch his name in crimson lore, versus becoming just another standout in a long line elsewhere, it’s Kent. But given the historic hurdles, it might be time to add a little juice to the process by going for the package deal. Just a thought. Would love to see what you fans think on the message boards.

A one-and-done kid or a fifth-year-senior transfer only buys you one season, you may protest. For me, that one year is all it takes in hoops. As long as the coach is sticking around, one major turnaround year is all you need to fully convince other prospects the program is on the rise. Success then starts to become self reinforcing.

• The Cougars(12-15/5-10) host Washington this Sunday at 5:30 pm (ESPNU). The Huskies are 9-19/2-13 and have lost nine-straight games. However, they are coming off a solid effort against No. 5 Arizona, who edged out a 76-68 win in Seattle. Senior forward Malik Dime was back in action for the Huskies in the game and while he didn’t produce a huge stat line he was making a difference in the post.

• WSU will close the regular season at USC on March 1 (Pac-12 Networks) and UCLA on March 4 (ESPNU). The Pac-12 Tournament will run from March 8-11 in Las Vegas.

• You may have heard Kent on the radio after the ASU win talking about Clifford and basketball in Japan. Thorpe in the S-R noted the other day that scouts from both a Japanese club team and the Japanese national team were in Pullman on Saturday to watch Clifford and the 7-foot senior didn't disappoint, leading the Cougars with 19 points in the 86-71 win over Arizona State. “Clifford’s mother is Japanese, so he would not count against a Japanese team’s limits on foreign players,” wrote Thorpe. “And playing for the national team is an especially big opportunity since Japan will host the 2020 Olympics.”

LOOKING TO 2017-18: Can Robert Franks become the dominate 4 WSU needs to elevate itself into the top tier of the conference?

ROBERT FRANKS (wsu photo)

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