Looking ahead: Washington State Cougars

It's never too early to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Washington State Cougars.

The past summer, Ernie Kent shuffled through the parking lot of a Las Vegas high school gymnasium and the 113-degree heat that covered it as he searched for prospects at an AAU tournament. The former Oregon head coach had recently accepted the top job at Washington State. He seemed excited to move forward and begin his first head-coaching stint since he was fired by the Ducks in 2010.

He recognized the challenges that would accompany the post -- the Cougars have reached the NCAA tournament just two times (2007 and 2008) since 1994 -- but remained positive about his ability to help Washington State script a new, more fruitful chapter.

He might need more time to turn the page. Washington State finished 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12 the past season. Its opponents managed a 52.4 effective field goal percentage (296th nationally per KenPom.com), and the team will lose top scorer DaVonte Lacy (16.9 points per game), Dexter Kernich-Drew (43 percent from the 3-point line) and 7-footer Jordan Railey. Aaron Cheatum, Trevor Dunbar and Jackie Davis -- none averaged more than 1.0 ppg -- decided to transfer.

The rebuilding process will continue. Kent has added some intriguing pieces to a program that won three more games and four more conference games than the 2013-14 team. But Washington State could struggle again in 2015-16 as Kent continues to put things together in Pullman.

What the immediate future holds:

Conor Clifford, a 7-foot junior college prospect from Saddleback College in Southern California, had offers from multiple Power 5 schools. His decision to pick Washington State helped fill a major void for WSU with Riley departing.

Paired with Josh Hawkinson (14.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 1.1 BPG), Houston transfer Valentine Izundu (who sat out 2014-15) and Clifford could form a strong frontcourt for the Cougars.

“Not only [did Clifford have] the most options, but he's also kind of the missing piece, particularly with this group that's coming in the door,” Kent told the Spokesman-Review the past month. “We needed a five-man, needed some size like that, so I think the fact that he was so highly recruited is also a really good indication of where our program is.”

There are more questions but more depth on the perimeter with Lacy and Kernich-Drew both gone. But the return of veteran Ike Iroegbu (8.9 PPG) helps. Que Johnson, Brett Boese and Ny Redding all averaged less than 20 minutes per game the past season. They could all carry heavier loads next year.

Recruit Vionte Daniels, Washington's 4A prep player of the year, and juco transfer Charles Callison could help immediately too. Junior college transfers Derrien King and Renard Suggs could also play their way into the mix.

Clifford is the most important addition. If Washington State intends to take the next step, it will need its talented frontcourt players to lead the way. In the future, Kent will need more guys such as Clifford -- elite prospects who could choose other big-league schools -- to pick Washington State.

The latter has been the obstacle for decades.

Yeah, Seattle produces talent. But Pullman isn't any closer to the city than Corvallis, Spokane or Eugene. That trek across the snowy mountains to get to the other side of the state doesn't help the program's cause. But Kent boosted the previous season's win tally in his first year. This year's group could also provide an upgrade if the frontcourt matches the hype.

Kent might need more elite players to compete in the Pac-12. The team's supporters will definitely need patience.