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Ernie Kent’s tall task at WSU

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His history suggests he needs a great offense to offset a not very good defense. He hasn’t come close to either of those at WSU yet.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With yet another unsuccessful WSU basketball season winding to a close — the ninth in a row without an NCAA tournament appearance — we can start looking ahead to the program’s future prospects under Ernie Kent, who will be entering his fourth year as coach of the Cougars when next season tips off.

For the eternal optimists among us, there are reasons to think the program is now trending in the right direction. Despite his production trailing off badly in the conference slate, freshman point guard Malachi Flynn looks like a keeper; sophomore big man Robert Franks appears to be the kind of guy who could take a major step forward; and there are other young pieces that — at the very least — come off as intriguing.

It’s the presence of Flynn (and also redshirting freshman Milan Acquaah) that caused Jacob Thorpe to write a cool story that dropped yesterday about the evolution of the point guard position across three schools under Kent, who more or less built his reputation as a coach on unleashing skilled ball handlers. (You should go read it!) These are Thorpe’s words, but I’d guess that a number of WSU fans agree with this assessment:

If Kent is able to achieve any similar level of success as the coach at Washington State, his time in Pullman will be defined by the players at the point guard position. His first three years with the Cougars were spent trying to find players in a certain mold.

Now, he has a pair of freshmen who fit. How they develop over the next four years will be the most important factor in determining whether the Cougars can rise above the bottom of the Pac-12 conference and contend for an NCAA tournament berth.

It’s that final sentence with which I take exception.


Deconstructing Kent’s success at Oregon

Ernie Kent made the NCAA tournament five times in 13 seasons at Oregon. Nine of those seasons and four of those appearances came in the “kenpom era,” which is to say post-2001, when Ken Pomeroy began tracking his opponent-adjusted efficiency statistics at kenpom.com. Because those kenpom stats give us the best approximation of apples-to-apples comparisons between what Kent did at Oregon and what he’s doing now at WSU, I’m going to focus today on Kent’s 12 seasons since 2001.

It’s common for the focus of team analysis to drift to the offensive end of the floor; heck, when I write my previews, I generally talk primarily about how the Cougars might score on their opponents. We all do it. So, let’s focus on offense for a minute.

Kent came to WSU with a reputation for high-flying offenses, and that’s backed up by Pomeroy’s metric. (Advance warning: I’m going to use a few tables, and your reading experience will undoubtedly be better on a computer rather than a mobile device.) Here’s how those nine “kenpom era” Oregon teams fared:

Luke Ridnour calls the play Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Ernie Kent’s offenses at Oregon

Season Ranking PPP (Adj) Natl Av PPP PPP AA
Season Ranking PPP (Adj) Natl Av PPP PPP AA
2002* 4 1.172 1.009 0.163
2003* 31 1.079 1.009 0.070
2004 54 1.064 1.008 0.056
2005 89 1.035 1.010 0.025
2006 38 1.081 1.013 0.068
2007* 8 1.140 1.018 0.122
2008* 6 1.149 1.018 0.131
2009 142 1.007 1.011 -0.004
2010 128 1.023 1.008 0.015
* = made NCAA tournament; Ranking = National ranking in adjusted points per possession; PPP (Adj) = points per possession, adjusted for opponent (or, alternately, projected PPP vs. an average defense); Natl Average = National average points per possession; PPP AA = Points per possession above average Data from kenpom.com

Outside of those two awful teams that led to his ouster (and you could even throw in the 2005 team with them), Kent always was able to put together at least a decent offense, including a trio of truly elite units.

And it was on the backs of those offenses that Kent’s teams made the NCAA tournament. Here’s another table — this one showing the national ranking and PPP above average for both the offense and defense of each of Kent’s teams. You’ll note that not only were his offenses always better than his defenses; in most years, his offense was much, much better than his defense:

Ernie Kent’s offenses and defenses at Oregon

Season Off Ranking Off PPP AA Def Ranking Def PPP AA
Season Off Ranking Off PPP AA Def Ranking Def PPP AA
2002* 4 0.163 41 -0.066
2003* 31 0.070 71 -0.070
2004 54 0.056 132 -0.034
2005 89 0.025 122 -0.041
2006 38 0.068 125 -0.042
2007* 8 0.122 57 -0.081
2008* 6 0.131 166 -0.022
2009 142 -0.004 191 -0.008
2010 128 0.015 160 -0.023
* = made NCAA tournament; Off/Def Ranking = National ranking in adjusted points per possession; Off/Def PPP AA = points per possession above (or below) the national average Data from kenpom.com

It should be pointed out there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, since most coaches have an affinity for one side of the ball or the other; to cite an extreme opposite example, Tony Bennett’s numbers look very similar across his tenure at WSU and Virginia, only with the defense ranking ahead of the offense in every season.

Here’s the thing, though: If you’re going to make the NCAA tournament — the standard for success at a school such as WSU — incredibly rare is the team that is able to just punt on one side of the court. And Kent’s teams at Oregon make that plainly clear; even with excellent offenses, Oregon still needed competent defenses. He had an offense ranked No. 38 in 2005, but the 125th-ranked defense sabotaged the season, and the Ducks won just 15 games. Oregon featured a defense ranked 166th in 2008, but the Ducks still made the tournament thanks to a ridiculous offense. However, that team won just 18 regular season games, secured a 9 seed and was bounced in the first round of the tournament.

Like tigers, coaches rarely change their stripes, and that’s what we’ve seen so far from Kent at WSU ... just with much, much worse results across the board:

Ernie Kent’s offenses and defenses

Season School Off Ranking Off PPP AA Def Ranking Def PPP AA
Season School Off Ranking Off PPP AA Def Ranking Def PPP AA
2002* Oregon 4 0.163 41 -0.066
2003* Oregon 31 0.07 71 -0.07
2004 Oregon 54 0.056 132 -0.034
2005 Oregon 89 0.025 122 -0.041
2006 Oregon 38 0.068 125 -0.042
2007* Oregon 8 0.122 57 -0.081
2008* Oregon 6 0.131 166 -0.022
2009 Oregon 142 -0.004 191 -0.008
2010 Oregon 128 0.015 160 -0.023
2015 WSU 78 0.05 300 0.067
2016 WSU 187 -0.011 189 0.011
2017 WSU 171 -0.002 219 0.026
* = made NCAA tournament; Off/Def Ranking = National ranking in adjusted points per possession; Off/Def PPP AA = points per possession above (or below) the national average Data from kenpom.com

Kent’s only objective “success” so far at WSU was in melding Ken Bone’s leftovers into a competent offense in his first season. However, the defense that year was something that should be nearly unfathomable for a team from a high major conference, and it sabotaged whatever chances that team had to be pretty good.

Meanwhile, the two worst offenses (by ranking) of Kent’s career in the kenpom era have come in the last two seasons, while three of his four worst defenses (and the three worst relative to average) have come in his WSU tenure.


How that informs analysis going forward

Let’s return to Thorpe’s line:

How [Flynn and Acquaah] develop over the next four years will be the most important factor in determining whether the Cougars can rise above the bottom of the Pac-12 conference and contend for an NCAA tournament berth.

This could prove to be true. But based on the evidence above, combined with what we know historically about WSU, I’d say that’s probably not going to be true.

Kent proved repeatedly at Oregon that offense can carry the day, but the following is really important to note: Of Kent’s four NCAA tournament teams, none was lower than 31st nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. His lone “bubble” team, in 2004, was ranked 54th.

If that’s the template for WSU, Kent’s really, really got his work cut out for him: Only once in the kenpom era have the Cougars had an offense ranked in the top 31 — Bennett’s Sweet 16 team. (They finished 20th.)

In fact, Bone — a really good offensive mind in his own right — could only get the WSU offense up to 89th with Klay Freaking Thompson destroying everyone. Oddly enough, Bone’s best offense came a year later with Brock Motum leading the way, as Reggie Moore dished out assists like halloween candy and DaVonté Lacy and Abe Lodwick bombed away from deep. That unit finished ... 60th.

Think about all the guys on that 2008 team ... Kyle Weaver ... Derrick Low ... Taylor Rochestie ... Aron Baynes ... Daven Harmeling ... and ask yourself:

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington State
Malachi Flynn
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Can Flynn and Acquaah become dynamic enough — with enough other pieces around them — to lead a top 30 offense? Can they be as good as Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks, two guys who ended up in the NBA after taking Oregon to the tournament? Can everyone surrounding Flynn and Acquaah be as good as a bunch of experienced top 100 players, without being top 100 players themselves?

Think about what that really requires, and acknowledge that it seems like a heck of an ask at WSU.

Instead, what’s probably going to determine whether the Cougars can rise above the bottom of the Pac-12 conference and contend for an NCAA tournament berth is whether Kent has the ability to put together a defense that is something other than breathtakingly terrible.

And this is where the pessimism really starts to take over. Beyond questioning how high the offense can go, I think there’s a lot of reason to think Kent will never crack a top 100 ranking on defense, which is almost certainly what will be required to produce a tournament-quality team even with a top 30 offense.

For starters, Kent has only done that three times in his career, and not with his last six teams. Second, his defensive results have more or less mirrored the level of athleticism on his roster. Remember: Kent was pulling in top 100 kids at Oregon, and while those kids aren’t always the best athletes, it remains a reasonable proxy for athleticism. And those kids could only generally produce bad defenses (by power conference standards). Additionally, you will not be surprised to find out that Kent had but one top 100 player on each of his final two teams at Oregon, and those two teams had two of his worst defenses.

And now, at WSU — without any top 100 players — the defense is bottoming out at levels not seen since Paul Graham was coach. And, in fairness to Graham*, not even he coached a unit whose national ranking started with a 3 and was followed by two more digits.

*Phrases I never thought I’d ever type.

WSU has a long, long way to go to crawl out of this hole and into a serious conversation about the NCAA tournament. Maybe in three or four years, Kent will have built another offensive juggernaut. We already know that Kent’s most successful teams are his most experienced. Or maybe he’ll have an epiphany about defense. Or maybe he’ll suddenly start pulling in exceptional recruits.

I sure hope one of those comes true. Because WSU is likely to continue to be pretty bad until it does.