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WSU and UW hope to continue winning streaks in Pac-12 opener

Washington State coach Ernie Kent won’t have the services of four-star recruit Roberto Gittens this season. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington State coach Ernie Kent won’t have the services of four-star recruit Roberto Gittens this season. (Young Kwak / AP)

SEATTLE – Well one of the Pac-12 Northwest’s precocious freshman point guards is going to begin his first season’s second chapter with a big win.

Markelle Fultz, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, and the Washington Huskies (7-5) host Malachi Flynn and the Washington State Cougars (7-5) on Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPNU.

Neither team won as many games as it hoped to in the preseason, and so a strong showing in conference play will be imperative for either team to achieve its goals this season.

There is urgency on Montlake, given the near certainty that Fultz will leave for the NBA after one season in college. Also there is the simmering seat under coach Lorenzo Romar, whose teams have not made the NCAA tournament since 2011.

Romar has signed more exceptional players in the incoming recruiting class. But he may need to win this year to be around next year to coach them. Preseason losses to Yale and Nevada have not helped his cause.

There is urgency on the Palouse, since forward Josh Hawkinson is playing out his final season. Hawkinson will graduate as the most consistent getter of double-doubles to ever play in Pullman. Unless WSU steps up its play significantly, he will also graduate having never played in the CBI, NIT or NCAA tournaments.

Flynn, who averages 11.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, gives Ernie Kent’s program a building block for the era after Hawkinson.

He is heady enough to play point guard but shoots well enough to play the off guard. The result has been freshman leading averaging 32.6 minutes per game, just behind Hawkinson and senior guard Ike Iroegbu.

“He came in one of the most focused individual, to be able to handle that position and to handle college-level academics as well,” Kent said. “He’s one of the smartest kids with one of the highest GPAs on the team, yet he lives in the gym.”

The Cougars enter Pac-12 play anxious to show they are better than last season, Kent’s second in Pullman, when they went 1-17 in conference play, and lost the last 16 games of the regular season.

After some bruises early in the year, the Cougars enter Pac-12 play on a two-game winning streak that comes on the heels of the team playing capably, for a half, before losing 70-56 at Kansas State.

“I think the biggest thing the preseason has shown us is that if we can do a set of things consistently, we have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team,” Kent said. “When we don’t do those things, we’re pretty mediocre.”

The Huskies have discovered their own rhythm, winning their last three games after enduring a four-game losing streak.

“They’re finding out what their identity is,” Kent said. “I think opening up conference play against them will make for one outstanding basketball game.”

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