John McGrath

Ernie Kent has to get Cougars to improve individually and as a team

The Washington State Cougars have yet to run through a wall for new coach Ernie Kent, but it can’t be denied at least one of them is jumping for joy.

During the eight months since Kent gave up his television career for the opportunity to make basketball relevant again in Pullman, 6-foot-2 sophomore guard Ike Iroegbu added seven inches to his vertical leap. The remarkable spike in Iroegbu’s hop underscores Kent’s insistence that while it’s a team sport on game night, sustainable success depends on the players’ commitment to what he calls “solitary time.”

“We’ve got to the manhole cover, now we’ve got to get to the top of the skyscraper,” Kent said last week. “The 75 percent you need to get yourself stable, that’s the easy part. The next 25 percent is the most difficult. It requires the day-to-day grind of mental toughness, doing your job, buying in every day, putting in solitary time — all of those things that make great teams great.

“That’s where we are right now: trying to get the guys to understand that a lot of it has to come from their own inside will power and the ability to get themselves in the gym and work out.”

Kent understands the enormity of the task awaiting him. The Cougars finished 10-21 last season — 3-15 in the Pac 12 Conference — sustaining a five-year nosedive from prominence achieved under former coach Tony Bennett.

As the losses piled up and top recruits went elsewhere, a Pullman community that traditionally has embraced basketball turned indifferent. Attendance at Beasley Coliseum dropped to an average of 2,800 for 16 home games, compelling athletic director Bill Moos to replace Ken Bone with a name familiar to fallen-away Cougars fans.

Enter Kent, who showed up for his job interview with a résumé that didn’t require Moos to vet it. They worked together at Oregon, where Kent took the Ducks to five NCAA Tournaments — twice advancing to the regional finals — between 2000 and 2008.

Between the energy he brings to his teams and his authoritative presence in a room, Kent was an obvious candidate. But given his age — he turns 60 in February — Kent also was an atypical choice to reboot a program with comprehensive challenges.

In any case, the parameters are clear: Don’t expect a startling turnaround by the Cougars, but don’t be surprised if a long-term turnaround is accomplished in increments.

“There’s a fine line between good teams and bad teams,” Kent said. “A lot of it has to do with consistency, game in and game out, of doing your job. You can beat people with better talent if they’re off their A game and you’re on your A game. Consequently, if you’re on your A game and the other team is on its A game and they’ve got better talent, I’m gonna have a hard time beating that team.

“My job is to get this team on its A game, and keep it there as long as possible.”

Kent’s job begins Friday night with a road test at Texas-El Paso, first leg of a Texas two-step that will wind up Monday at TCU. An 88-74 exhibition-game victory at Friel Court over Azusa Pacific, last Friday, served its purpose on several counts.

Kent found out he’s got a potential breakout star in 6-10 sophomore forward Josh Hawkinson, who came off the bench to lead the Cougars with 24 points and 18 rebounds. DaVonte Lacy, the Curtis High product returning from a junior season derailed by separate knee injuries, added 22 points, but Kent knew about Lacy. Hawkinson’s emergence was a revelation.

Meanwhile, Kent got back to the floor after his well-received sojourn as a Pac-12 Network basketball analyst. Like most jobs, it was more difficult than it looked.

Instead of preparing for an immediate opponent, Kent had to acquire information on every team and every player in the league.

The upside? He never lost, so there was no pressure. Decisions were reduced to where to go for a post-game meal.

The downside? He never won, either.

Kent’s goal at WSU is both ambitious and attainable: win enough to arrange a Beasley Coliseum viewing party on Selection Sunday.

“The thing I’ve told this team,” he said, “is when and if they ever have the opportunity to get to the NCAA tournament, they will understand why we worked so hard as coaches. Because that is the ultimate prize, that is why you’re in this business: It’s to get to March Madness.

“March Madness is an incredible feeling. We’ve been there enough as a staff to understand why we push, why we’re up late, why we demand, why we care so much, why we’re passionate. I need to get these players to visualize that. Once we get there? You’ll never have to sell them on work ethic again, because they’ll understand what the reward is.”

For Cougars fans who found themselves yawning through the Ken Bone era, Kent’s words are an invitation to climb aboard the WSU basketball bandwagon.

Plenty of seats are available.