Ernie Kent wanted to bring his Washington State University men’s basketball team to the Tri-Cities for a few good reasons.
“We’re in dead week heading into finals,” said Kent in a phone interview on Friday. “I know it’s winter and getting to Pullman sometimes can be tough. And I’m willing to (come to the Tri-Cities for a game) again. It allows our team to get out of town and see a place some of them haven’t been before. And we know we’ll have fans there, so it’ll help our team’s energy.”
And that’s why the WSU men’s team is hosting Montana State University at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Toyota Center. Tickets are still available at the Toyota Center box office.
Kent’s Cougars are off to a 5-2 start, and there is a lot to like about this season’s WSU team.
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“They’re a team with a lot of position-less players,” said Kent. “By that I mean we have a lot of players who can play the guard spot and the forward spot. You’ll see different guys bringing the ball up court with the dribble.”
That allows Kent to mix and match a lot on the floor, and he has so far as he preps his team for the upcoming Pac-12 Conference wars in January. He also likes the players’ strength of character.
“Fans are going to enjoy this team’s camaraderie,” said Kent. “They’re going to feel the camaraderie. They’ll see a team that’s in sync with each other. These guys have been growing together on the floor and off the floor.”
The only negative, he says, is the Cougars — with six new players on the roster this season — will need some time to grow.
“You can’t speed up the experience factor,” Kent admits. “You hope the foundation is good. You hope the defense is good. You hope the leadership is good. So far, they’ve done all of those things that are needed.”
Senior Robert Franks, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Vancouver, Wash., leads the Cougars in scoring at 24.3 points a game, and he needs just 88 more points this season to hit the 1,000-point career scoring mark.
CJ Elleby, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward from Seattle, is averaging 13.6 points a game, while Isaiah Wade —a 6-7 power forward from Minneapolis — is at 10.5 a game.
Kent really likes this team.
“It’s been one of the more enjoyable times so far,” he said. “These guys allow you to coach them on the floor. And our assistant coaches do such an outstanding job mentoring these kids. We have a great time with these guys.”
In Montana State (2-6), Kent says don’t be fooled by the Bobcats’ record.
“They have played in a lot of tough environments already this season,” he said. MSU has lost road games at Indiana, Colorado State and Arkansas.
Tyler Hall, a 6-5 senior guard, leads the Bobcats with a 19.1 points scoring average. “Hall is one of the better guards we’ll face this season,” Kent said.
Fourth-year head coach Brian Fish — who was a long-time assistant for current Oregon head coach Dana Altman — will also depend on 6-6 junior forward Keljin Blevens (11.5 points a game) and 6-5 forward Ladan Ricketts (11.0) for scoring.
▪ Both teams take at least a week off after Sunday’s game. MSU travels to the University of Denver on Dec. 18. The Bobcats also begin Big Sky Conference play on Dec. 29 at Southern Utah. WSU will play host to Rider on Dec. 17 in Pullman. The Cougars begin Pac-12 play on Jan. 5 at Washington.
▪ The Bobcats won their last contest, an 81-76 verdict over North Dakota on Nov. 27. Hall surpassed the 2,000-point mark for his career in that game.
▪ Blevins is the cousin of NBA star Damian Lillard and former Tri-Cities Fever quarterback Houston Lillard.
▪ WSU beat Idaho 90-70 on Wednesday in Pullman. Franks scored 22 points and Elleby added 20 for the Cougs in the win.