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John Blanchette: Progress isn’t in WSU’s basketball vocabulary

PULLMAN – So you’re saying that if Robert Franks plays … and the game’s at home … and the other team is missing an NBA draft pick and its No. 3 scorer … and was on the skids even with those guys … then Washington State has a chance.

Not that the Cougars will win. And they didn’t.

But you’re saying there was a chance.

That doesn’t much sound like progress, does it?

Didn’t look anything like progress, either.

In fact, the Cougars’ 78-66 loss to Stanford at high noon on Saturday was a mad dash into an open manhole. If somebody slides the cover back on, we may never see them again.

“We certainly wasted what was just a wonderful opportunity,” said WSU coach Ernie Kent, “with the crowd, the students, the community coming out to see this team play after playing so well on Thursday.

“No excuses. I’m scratching my head.”

Well, he has company in that, for reasons beyond one dismal game. But this pratfall is a good enough place to start.

Now, not much was expected from this Wazzu team before the season and losses to the likes of Montana State and Santa Clara on neutral-but-still-509 courts dialed it down further. The absence of their best player was floated as something of an asterisk after five of the Cougars’ losses, especially after they crushed even more hapless Cal on Thursday with Franks pouring in 24 points.

Then Stanford, with its last road victory coming back on Nov. 9, showed up with KZ Okpala and his ridiculous skill set shelved by back spasms, and guard Cormac Ryan still out with a bum ankle.

And yet the Tree’s remaining role players still shot 56 percent against a Cougar, uh, resistance that continually lost snipers sitting on the 3-point line and cutters knifing to the basket. Meanwhile, WSU guard Ahmed Ali nailed four 3-pointers in the first half and Kent somehow couldn’t get him another shot until just 3 minutes remained. Finally, down six with a minute to go, the Cougs opt to foul, perhaps unnecessarily – but not down eight 20 seconds later.

“We just weren’t there,” Kent allowed.

Which remains a pretty good description of basketball at WSU these past several years.

The Kent era at Wazzu now shows a record of 54-87 – 19-58 in Pac-12 play – 4 1/2 seasons in, the conference high point still coming in his initial year of 2015 and accomplished with a roster which received 93 percent of its production from players already in the program.

Naturally, the program’s few remaining devotees were mystified when former athletic director Bill Moos rolled over Kent’s contract to its original five years – twice, after seasons of 22 and 18 losses. But considering no other investments of substance were being made in the program, maybe it’s the least Moos felt he could do for his hire.

But you’d have to assume an exit visa is imminent – except that this is Washington State.

Where the mitigating circumstance was, if not invented, at least patented.

For one thing, there’s that contract – at $1.4 million a year. It runs through 2022 and Wazzu is on the hook for all of it. For another, there’s That Darned Deficit in Cougar athletics, creeping toward a projected $85 million at last spring’s accounting to the state, and even so football must be kept fed.

And for yet another, there were these remarks by athletic director Pat Chun on the radio in Spokane last week.

“The talent is there,” he said. “The culture is right with this program … I see what’s in that locker room and my faith in them has not wavered because I know the quality of the young guys and the coaches that will get through this.”

No real surprise there. That’s the gallant way to go.

But the talent? There’s an A-lister in Franks and a happy find in CJ Elleby, whose considerable abilities make it easier to live with his freshman tendencies. Beyond that, there’s no one who keeps a Pac-12 game-planner up nights.

This has been Kent’s undoing. The players he was able to get in his Oregon days are not showing up at Wazzu. His one other recruit of note, Malachi Flynn, bailed last spring to San Diego State – one of 13 scholarship players Kent has had leave. People want to wave that as a cultural red flag, but it’s actually red because most of the departed weren’t Division I caliber.

But there’s another thing squeezing Chun between a rock and red ink: Part of his escape plan from deficit hell is increasing ticket revenue, which he admitted last spring would have to be felt mostly in basketball, as Martin Stadium is doing capacity business.

The crowd that had Kent so jazzed Saturday was 2,304.

And that isn’t progress, either.

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