When the hire was made, most saw it as a good move, but so far, Ernie Kent hasn’t delivered the same type of success in Pullman he once enjoyed at his alma mater, the University of Oregon.
Washington State has always been a tough place to recruit to. Pullman is out in the middle of nowhere with no big city life remotely close to campus. If an athlete truly wants the college town atmosphere, Pullman is the place to be. The problem is that most elite athletes come from the big cities such as Los Angeles. They don’t want to experience culture shock when they leave home and are out on their own for the first time. Most want to keep some resemblance to their lives before college.
Kent knew what he was getting into, however. While at Oregon, he was able to recruit the best players out of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. This was before Matthew Knight Arena. Those kids were being sold on Kent’s style of play, on Eugene as a whole, and on old McArthur Court.
It wasn’t an easy sell.
No one before Kent was able to sell kids on the Oregon Duck lifestyle at the level he did. Before Kent, the Ducks made one NCAA tournament appearance in 1995 which halted a run of 34 seasons without making the Big Dance. Once Kent got to Oregon, the Ducks were semi-regulars in the NCAA tourney, making it five times, twice to the Elite Eight, in Kent’s 14 seasons. That might seem modest to many, but by Oregon basketball standards, it gave Kent “legend” status.
Athletic Director Bill Moos hired Kent at Oregon, and he hired him again at Washington State, hoping for similar results. So far, not so good. Kent is 22-40 overall and just 8-28 in Pac-12 play. In his first season, the Cougars were a lot better than they were previously. WSU was 13-18 overall, but a respectable 7-11 in conference play. While that’s not great, in Ken Bone’s (not THAT Ken Bone) last season in 2013-14, the Cougars were 3-15 in the Pac-12.
Kent’s first WSU team was led by Davonte Lacy and sophomore Josh Hawkinson. As expected at programs with new coaches, the roster was changed in the second year due to graduation and defections by those not comfortable with the new coach.
The Cougars subsequently fell off the cliff, going 9-22 overall and winning just one conference game. It was a drop-off no one expected, leaving Kent to start over once again.
Kent was successful in recruiting the best players in Los Angeles, but he also mined the Seattle area and usually got the best player out of the state of Oregon, such as Freddie Jones and Luke Jackson. He out-recruited in-state rival Oregon State, which at the time had facilities on par with Oregon.
Somehow, someway, Kent needs to make that same formula work in Pullman. He needs to convince the Seattle-area player to come to Eastern Washington, to get the player he can out of Los Angeles and recruit the best player in Washington.
For 2016, he got Los Angeles native Milan Acquaah, the No. 35-ranked point guard in the country according to ESPN.com. Los Angeles, check.
Kent also recruited Malachi Flynn, a 6-1 point guard out of Tacoma. Flynn averaged 37 points per game, and was named the Washington State Player of the Year for all classifications by the Associated Press, as well as the AP’s State 4A Player of the Year and a member of the AP’s first team all-state. One of the best players in the state, check.
Kent also signed Keith Langston out of Chicago, another player from a big city and a big man out of Utah, Jeff Pollard. Washington State will have Hawkinson for one more year and with this new class, the Cougars might have started building a foundation. However, one good class doesn’t make a program. Kent will need to follow the 2016 class with another good 2017 class and beyond.
Washington State fans should throw out the past two seasons of the Kent era. The majority of those rosters were made up of players he didn’t recruit. That can’t be said of this year’s roster. The 2016-17 team is more reflective of what Washington State team will look like.
Moos was patient with Kent at Oregon and expect the same here. The Cougars will be improved over last season’s team, which won’t be hard to do. As long as Kent’s teams are making progress and they can still envision going to the Big Dance in a year or two, Moos won’t make a move.
But another 1-17 league record can’t happen again.