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Washington State men: Cougars are bigger, but will they be better?

In the past, Washington State hasn’t always had the size, the length and the athleticism to combat the Pac-12’s elite big men, but this season the Cougars should at least be 2-for-3 there. The frontcourt averages almost 6-foot-9 across the board, and while WSU won’t have the girth or physicality to match up with certain opponents, the Cougars have long wingspans, and increasing their activity on the defensive end could lead to more deflections in the passing lanes, blocked shots at the rim and improved rebounding numbers.

Frontcourt

When opposing teams size up WSU this year, Robert Franks will be the first, second and third name on their scouting report. The senior from Vancouver, Washington, essentially doubled his scoring and rebounding totals between his sophomore and junior season, and was named the Pac-12 Most Improved Player in 2017-18. Franks, who scored 17.4 points per game and grabbed 6.6 rebounds as a junior, appeared on some mock NBA Draft boards toward the end of last season, and the 6-foot-9 forward should reappear on most of those as his senior year begins.

Another asset of this frontcourt is its number of capable ball-handlers. Ernie Kent likes big men who are capable of snatching rebounds at one end and leading the fast break on the other. Franks, of course, is well-schooled in that regard, as is every forward/center on this team with the exception of Jeff Pollard and Davante Cooper. Isaiah Wade and Marvin Cannon are skilled forwards who have experience at the junior college level. True freshmen Aljaz Kunc and CJ Elleby each bring something different to the table. Kunc is a springy 6-8 forward who has a delicate touch from three-point range and Elleby, son of former Cal player Bill Elleby, has impressed Kent’s staff with his basketball savvy and on-court maturity.

Backcourt

Malachi Flynn transferred from WSU in March and left the Cougars without a player who likely would’ve contended for All-Pac-12 honors in his third year as the program’s starting point guard. Replacing Flynn isn’t easy – and the Cougars won’t do it with one player – but Kent was able to inject some experience into his backcourt by snagging two junior college point guards during the offseason. Ahmed Ali, a Toronto native whose claim to fame is scoring 103 points in a high school game, will competefor the position with Jervae Robinson, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.1 assists in two seasons at Colorado’s Otero Junior College.

Senior Viont’e Daniels and junior Carter Skaggs are the returners in the backcourt, and both are 3-point snipers who shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc last season. With Flynn out of the picture, and Franks in need of some help on the score sheet, Daniels and Skaggs, who combined for 17.2 points per game last season – less than Franks averaged alone – will see an uptick in floor time and will be expected to hoist more shots.

Bench

The reserves combined for a scoring output of 20.7 ppg last season and the Cougars didn’t have enough firepower in their starting five, let alone someone who could come off the bench and make hefty contributions. Milan Acquaah and Kwinton Hinson did it occasionally, but both players transferred out with Flynn, along with Jamar Ergas and KJ Langston. Eleven different players started games for Kent last year, and it’s unclear who will be the primary starters this season, but the influx of JC transfers should give the Cougars more depth and experience on the bench.

Coaching

Kent’s skeptics have plenty of ammunition in the coach’s fifth season. His best record came during his first season at WSU, when the Cougars won seven conference games and finished in a tie for eighth in the Pac-12. But they’ve gone just 18-54 in conference play since he arrived, 47-77 overall. WSU hasn’t exceeded 13 wins under Kent and the Cougars are going on six straight years without a postseason appearance. His two top assistants, Bennie Seltzer and Ed Haskins, are no longer Pac-12 newcomers and each enter their second season with the WSU program. Kent promoted another coach this offseason, elevating former coordinator of operations Tim Marrion to full-time assistant.


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