Looking ahead: Washington State still trying to find its traction

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Washington State Cougars.

Washington State is one of the toughest jobs among Power 5 conference schools. It’s two years into coach Ernie Kent’s tenure and yet the foundation isn’t quite set for building a solid future. Kent is still trying to find the right personnel. The Cougars had five transfers on last season’s roster and their play reflected a team without much continuity. Kent was scrambling for a solution that just wasn’t there, which is partly why he tried 14 different starting lineups during the season.

None of them caught on. Washington State lost its last 17 games and wasn’t even particularly competitive along the way. During that streak, 13 losses were by double digits, including an 80-56 season-ending defeat to Colorado that assured the Cougars’ seventh straight one-and-done appearance in the Pac-12 tournament.

The losses kept mounting even after the season ended. Guards Ny Redding and Renard Suggs decided to transfer, which, along with the departure of starting center Valentine Izundu, means no one from Kent’s first recruiting class remains on the roster.

Izundu’s exit was contested after he announced plans to graduate and transfer to San Diego State. Kent and the university initially blocked Izundu’s attempt to contact SDSU amid tampering charges — Izundu went to San Diego for spring break and attended an Aztecs game in the NIT — but later granted him his full release.

Apparently it was a crazy spring break because guard Que Johnson, who was with Izundu on the trip, also decided to become a graduate transfer. Johnson, who signed with Western Kentucky, was one of only three Cougars to appear in every game last season. Johnson ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range.

Washington State is thankful Josh Hawkinson didn’t join the list of graduate transfers to leave. The 6-foot-10 forward led the team with 15.4 points per game and led the Pac-12 with 11.1 rebounds per game. He was the Cougars’ most consistent player, tying his own school record with 20 double-doubles last season. Hawkinson returning for his senior year brought a sigh of relief to Pullman after a season that didn’t have a lot of celebratory moments.

Hawkinson again will team with point guard Ike Iroegbu for an inside-outside punch. Iroegbu led the team with 3.6 assists per game and was the second-leading scorer behind Hawkinson with 12.7 points per game. Iroegbu became a much more confident shooter last season, but he’ll have to be more consistent as a senior. Iroegbu, the only player to start every game last season, shot 34.7 percent from 3-point range but made only 13 of 56 in league play.

Guard Charles Callison is the third starter returning and arguably the Cougars’ most athletic player. His first season of major college basketball after transferring from junior college had the typical swings of a player trying to transition. Washington State will need more consistency, and he’ll have a chance to take on more scoring responsibility next season.

The departure of Johnson, Suggs and Redding means the Cougars’ will have plenty of time available in the backcourt for incoming freshmen Malachi Flynn or Milan Acquaah to claim. Kent compared Flynn to Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks, a pair of his best guards at Oregon. And for Kent’s fast-paced system that emphasizes scoring, he should fit in from the start.

A couple of late signings in Jamar Ergas and junior college transfer Keith Langston should add depth to the backcourt.

The frontcourt will miss Izundu’s shot-blocking presence, meaning either 7-footer Conor Clifford will have to become more of a rim protector or the Cougars will get used to playing small more.

The hope is that forwards like junior Derrien King and sophomore Robert Franks will grow from being bit players in their first year at Washington State last season to contributors next season. They’re also high on freshman forward Jeff Pollard, who signed with the 2015 class but spent a year training with Impact Basketball in Las Vegas last season. The 6-foot-9 power forward also is expected to compete right away for playing time.

It’s too soon to list the Cougars as Pac-12 title contenders with a potential to land in top 25 polls. Simply expecting them to be more competitive is the next step, and one that’s well within reach.

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