Washington State is no longer the doormat of the Pac-12 in basketball. The Cougars already have as many conference wins this year as they had in all of the 2013-14 season. They are sitting in a surprising tie for 5th place after finishing 11th for the last two years.
The improvement comes as a shock to almost everyone. Last year they finished with a dismal 10-21 record (3-15 Pac-12). This year they are already 9-8 (3-2 Pac-12), almost as many wins as in all of 2013. The records don't truly show the improvement. The 2013 team was about as much fun to watch as paint drying. They couldn't rebound, they couldn't defend and they couldn't shoot.
What's the difference? A new coach and a new attitude. Ernie Kent was brought in to turn around things and he already has the team rolling. The turnaround has been dramatic. Kent brought in a fast-paced up-tempo style, and the players have fully embraced it. The Cougs are averaging 71.8 ppg and put up a season-high of 108 against Oregon. This is after averaging a paltry 62.4 ppg last year.
Kent comes to the Cougars after 13 years coaching at Oregon. He has a 330-260 record as a head coach at Saint Mary's, Oregon and WSU. His teams have gone to the NCAA's six times including two Elite Eight appearances. He is known for his wide-open offenses, something that haven't been seen in Pullman in many years.
The improvement is so dramatic because Kent hasn't brought in a bunch of new guys. These are the same players as last year. Kent has simply given them the confidence to play better. The Cougars still have all Pac-12 guard DaVonte Lacy, and he is still one of the conference's best. But it's his supporting cast that has made the difference.
Sophomore Josh Hawkinson has shown the biggest improvement. After barely playing last year, he is averaging 15.4 ppg and 11.0 rebounds. Fellow sophomore Ike Iroegbu is averaging 9.2 ppg but is better known for pushing the ball quickly up the court. Kent has called him the fastest guard in the Pac-12 and maybe the fastest in college basketball. Brett Boese is averaging 6.1 ppg and is hitting 43% of his 3-point attempts. Center Jordan Railey has become a legitimate presence in the paint.
All these players were on the team last year and went largely unused or were ineffective. The only change has been Kent and his style of play. He said at the beginning of the season all these guys needed was someone to believe in them and he was right. They have all responded to his coaching.
Offensively Kent has changed the Cougars from a half-court team to a fast-break push the tempo style. Iroegbu often rushes the ball up the court, creating mismatches and open shots before the defense is set. He also uses an aggressive defense that creates turnovers resulting in easy hoops. This has resulted in the Cougs getting faster and more open shots.
It remains to be seen how the Cougars will finish, but they have already shown a huge improvement.