By just about any measure, Ernie Kent's first season as head coach at Washington State was a successful one. Not only did he improve both the overall and conference win totals from the previous year, he did it with a pleasing uptempo style of play that put a little bit of fun back in WSU hoops for the first time in years.
The team was immediately better, the sort of thing you expect when you hire a high-priced coach.
But while 2014-2015 was good relative to expectations, Kent wasn't hired to win 13 games, and he wasn't hired to finish 8th in the conference. He was hired to get the Cougars back into the NCAA tournament -- a place he landed five times in his 13 seasons as head coach of Oregon -- for the first time since 2008.
We knew going into this season that the Big Dance was an unlikely destination for this year's team. And, frankly, it's hard not to somewhat pessimistic about next year, as WSU is off to a 1-6 start in Pac-12 play with a 9-10 record overall after playing a pillow soft nonconference schedule.
But that's the eventual goal as Kent continues to remake WSU's roster, which suffered from severe talent depletion under Ken Bone.
Kent came to WSU with a reputation as an ace recruiter. At Oregon, he successfully recruited eight consensus top 100 players to Eugene between 1997 and 2010; WSU, by comparison, recruited just one -- Klay Thompson -- in that same time frame, and hasn't recruited one since.
If you're wondering what's so magical about top 100 recruits, they actually make it significantly more likely that a given team will make it to the NCAA tournament. Thanks to some data provided to us by Sports Illustrated's Dan Hanner and crunched by our own Brian Anderson, here's how the presence of former top 100 recruits (as classified by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index) affects a team's likelihood of advancing to the Big Dance:
Now, this is for all of Division I, so the numbers on the low end are skewed just a bit -- teams in low-major and mid-major conferences make up the vast majority of Division I, and virtually all of those teams have zero top 100 recruits with no shot at an at-large bid. But that analysis cuts the other way, too: If you're in a high major conference, playing against teams with top 100 recruits, your road to the NCAA tournament is a lot tougher.
Everything changes if a program can land just a couple of top 100 recruits. Secure one, and you've got a one in five chance of making to the Dance. Land two, and a program's chances of making the NCAA tournament double from that. Entice four to your campus? The NCAA tournament is a 50/50 proposition before the season even tips off.
*By the way, can you guess the one team with nine or more top 100s that didn't make the NCAAs? We'll put the answer in the comments.
Obviously, having top 100 recruits isn't everything when it comes to making the NCAA tournament; WSU famously had zero top 100 recruits when it twice advanced to the NCAA tournament under Tony Bennett in 2007 and 2008, ascending into the top 10 of the AP poll at one point and earning a pair of top four seeds in the process. Clearly, it can be done.
But just as clearly, those Cougars were the exception rather than the rule.
(And lest you think Bennett is still working his diamond-in-the-rough magic at Virginia, his 2010-2014 teams averaged three top 100 recruits on their rosters.)
If you catch fans in a moment of honesty, they know this is the case -- "It's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmies and Joes," right? If it wasn't the case that teams with more talented players are more likely to be better overall, coaches wouldn't fight so hard over the most talented players.
Kent was no exception to this at Oregon; he had at least one top 100 recruit on each of his rosters (except for his first one, for which there is no top 100 recruit data). Here's a look at the rate at which he turned those into NCAA tournament appearances:
|TOP 100S||NO. OF TEAMS||YEARS||NO. OF NCAAS||YEARS||PCT OF MAKING NCAAS|
|1||6||99, 00, 03, 04, 09, 10||2||00, 03||33%|
|4||3||05, 06, 07||1||07||33%|
This is pretty much in line with what the probabilities tell us you'd expect. About the only thing a little out of whack here is that he only made it one time with those four top 100s, but making it twice with just one makes up for it.
Additionally, Kent's Ducks were at their very best when they were talented and experienced. For this graph, put together by Eric Winters, I assigned a value to each top 100 recruit based on their year in school -- one point for a freshman top 100, two points for a sophomore, etc. -- to come up with a roster total and compared it to the team's ranking by Sports-Reference.com's Simple Rating System:
Pretty clear pattern, yeah? The more experienced his top 100 recruits, the better his teams were -- sometimes very, very good. Which, of course you would expect ... but it's also important to note that his teams that were talented but inexperienced were less good than you probably would expect.
Here's why this matters to WSU.
With two recruiting classes and the 2016 early signing period in the books, Kent has yet to land a top 100 recruit, and doesn't even appear to have been seriously in play for one; the vast majority of WSU's recruits under Kent haven't even had other reported high-major offers. It's showing on the court this year, where WSU -- featuring an inexperienced squad (just three major contributors with more than one season at WSU) devoid of top 100 talent -- has been largely outclassed by power conference opponents.
And help doesn't appear to be on the way, as this season's class features Milan Acquaah, a three-star combo guard who is otherwise unranked by recruiting services, and forward Jeff Pollard, an unrated recruit who graduated last year and is spending this year at a prep school in order to develop.
One of the premises upon which Kent was hired was that he had the pedigree to attract high-level recruits to Pullman, even after being out of coaching for four years. That hasn't come to fruition yet.
Perhaps it is taking Kent some time to reestablish recruiting ties; the world of grassroots basketball is an ever-changing amoeba, and four years is a long time to be away from that ecosystem. Perhaps he is putting all of his energy into the 2017 class, which is currently projected to have seven scholarships available. Perhaps he's just lost his touch.
Whatever it is, if Kent continues to put together recruiting classes at WSU that are substantially less heralded than what he was able to assemble at Oregon, he'll have to buck his own established history -- as well as probability in general -- if he's going to return the Cougars to prominence.
The original version of this story appeared in CougCenter's 2015-16 WSU Basketball Season Preview.