One of the main reasons the Cougars have been floundering on the court has been the lack of a consistent, dominating inside presence. When there's no inside game, it's not possible for the Cougars to play their preferred fastbreak type of offense.
That's why the recent emergence of freshman Kendrick Washington is so important to the Cougars.
It's not just because, at 6-7, Washington is a big man. Maurice McNeil and Sean Coleman are also big men who have been getting consistent playing time for the Cougars. But at 270 pounds, Washington brings a physical and powerful and pounding mode of play to the game that the team has been sorely lacking this season.
But as much as head coach Tom Penders wanted Washington out on the court earlier this season, and as much as Washington himself wanted the same thing, it just wasn't possible. Not after Washington had surgery this season to fix hairline fractures in both of his shins. And it was only in the past several weeks that Washington had a talk with Penders and convinced him that he was ready to play fulltime minutes on the court.
"After we'd seen a couple of losses with the guards," Washington tells Hair Balls. "I was just like 'Tell him.' He was focused on my legs, making sure my legs were okay. He didn't want me out there struggling and hurt. So I just went and told him my leg's fine, and I'm ready to go. Give me a shot. And he gave me a shot. I just took care of the opportunity."
Penders didn't mind Washington coming to him and requesting playing time. This was something he had been waiting and hoping for. "Early on, he was a little reluctant too," Penders said of Washington. "We've got a great training staff here. [Associate Athletics Director] John Houston does a fabulous job. And John would be telling me, 'coach, I think he can do more, but I think it's important for him to feel like he can.' And I listen to John. And I agree with him. And I kept telling him that. I said, 'Kendrick, when you're ready, when you're ready to play more than 10 minutes, you've got to let me know, and you've got to show me in practice and I'll keep you out here.'"
It was a difficult comeback for Washington. He wasn't able to play or workout, and he has yet to fully recover his speed or vertical leap. It's been difficult for him to adjust to not being able to play like he did before the surgery.
"It was hard at first because I was getting mad because I'm used to running and dunking and doing all these...and I couldn't really do these at first, and it was frustrating," he said. "But I just kept working, kept working. Kind of running and doing therapy with trainer John. I just got to work my way through practice slowly, playing five minutes or ten minutes or fifteen minutes, taking off at the end. Now I'm ready."
And now that he's ready, Penders and the guards are ready and happy to have him on the court. Penders compares him to former NBA great Wes Unseld, who played center alongside former Cougar great Elvin Hayes while both were with the Washington Bullets. Like Unseld, Washington doesn't get pushed around by the bigger guys, he can clear out space under the bucket for the small guys to roam, and he has the ability of a point guard.
"It helps a lot," guard Kelvin Lewis said of having Washington on the court. "A lot of teams, they see us as a guard team, so they focus on the guards a lot. There's a lot of space down low for the bigs to work out...once we started establishing down low, like we've been doing these past couple of games, it's tough on teams because it gets their big men in foul trouble. And then once, their big men get in foul trouble, we're penetrating and getting in the paint.
"He's pounding down low," Lewis continued. "He's playing great defense. He's a force. He's knocking people around. He's making it tough for the big men to get into position. He's just being a pest down low."
Penders loves the upside that comes with Washington, and he calls him a franchise-type player around which the Cougars can be built. And Washington has been developing a rapport with Aubrey Coleman, with whom he's been putting in extra work, and which is resulting in Coleman developing a strong trust in Washington's play and in Washington's skills with the ball.
The Cougars are sitting at 11-9 (4-3 in conference). If they are to stand any chance of finishing this season on a high note and possibly winning the conference tournament, then a strong finishing kick from Washington is a must. That starts tonight in El Paso when the Cougars take on UTEP. And Kendrick Washington can't wait to continue his comeback by beating up on big guys inside the paint.