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Nowhere But Up 

Assessing the WSU Cougars as they look to rebound

click to enlarge Josh Hawkinson will be a big part of coach Ernie Kent's restructured offense.
  • Josh Hawkinson will be a big part of coach Ernie Kent's restructured offense.

If you're a Washington State men's basketball fan, you might be shuddering at the prospect of another Cougars season. Sorry to remind the faithful, but WSU won just nine games last season and just a single contest in Pac-12 play (for what it's worth, the win was against then-No. 25 UCLA). But changes are afoot in Pullman, so let's take a look at how the Cougs' campaign could shake out.

THE GOOD

Radio advertisements playing in the Inland Northwest have promised that change is coming to the Cougars. They don't just mean just a shift to winning games, but rather a new style of play.

"People will see the speed of the game, the crispness offensively and the ability to score. You will see a team that is more intense on the defensive side of the floor," says WSU head coach Ernie Kent.

The ability to score is a good thing, of course. The Cougars averaged just 70.5 points per game last season, and perhaps increased speed could lead to wins and butts in the seats of what has been a cavernously empty Beasley Coliseum as of late.

No matter what happens with this year's Cougars, WSU faithful should nevertheless celebrate the career of big man Josh Hawkinson. The 6-foot-10 senior from Shoreline, Wash., posted 20 double-doubles last season and led the Pac-12 in rebounding at 11.1 per game. He'll continue to be integral to any Cougars success.

Say what you will about Kent, but the guy has a track record of winning. He's had bad seasons before and come back. In the 1995-96 season, his Saint Mary's Gaels finished next to last in the West Coast Conference. He came back the following season to win 23 games and take the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament. He rebounded several times in his 13 seasons at Oregon, too.

THE INTERESTING

The Cougars play a non-conference schedule that should catch your attention and could set them up nicely for Pac-12 play. Most notably, they play in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they'll face No. 22 Creighton on Nov. 18 and could face teams like North Carolina State, Saint Joseph's and Ole Miss. Aside from playing Kansas State on Dec. 10 in Kansas City, the Cougars shouldn't get too roughed up; they'll look for revenge against Idaho in the Battle of the Palouse on Dec. 7.

Kent has promised more contributions from a few guys we didn't see too much of last season. Derrien King will get more time as the Cougs move toward a smaller lineup at times. Viont'e Daniels saw a little time last year as a freshman, but mostly as a three-point specialist. Kent says he can do a lot more than that now.

"Viont'e has gotten bigger and stronger," Kent says. "He spent his time this summer in the weight room. He has always been able to shoot the basketball, but now he has a bigger and stronger body that will be able to handle the physicality of the conference as well."

THE NOT GOOD

The Cougars ride a 17-game losing streak into this campaign, which is demoralizing for team and fans alike. In fact, the Cougars have only one win, against UCLA, in the 2016 calendar year. They hope to notch their second victory of 2016 against Montana State on Friday, Nov. 11 in Pullman.

The season is also pivotal in Kent's quest to keep his job. It will be his third year with WSU, and he's yet to produce the sort of results the athletic department and fans expected when he left his Pac-12 Networks commentary role for a return to coaching. Even if you don't like Kent's style, tossing him after three seasons would probably set the Cougars' arrival date at the top end of the Pac-12 standings back even further than you'd expect. ♦

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