Fans have complained about WSU's defense to one degree or another ever since Ken Bone's arrival in Pullman 2 1/2 years ago.
I always felt like the criticisms were at least somewhat unfair because Bone's Cougars were being held up to an impossible standard; after ranking 77th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in Dick Bennett's first season, the next five teams never ranked lower than 19th. WSU fans expected every team to be able to do that under any coach, but it's just not realistic -- I honestly can't find another coach that puts together elite defenses like the Bennetts year after year at a non-elite program.*
*The two closest examples I could find are Kevin O'Neill and Frank Martin, but O'Neill doesn't have the same kind of history Bennett did and Martin's teams at Kansas State have been fixtures in the top 25 for years now. Point is, it's incredibly rare, if not outright unique; you might also consider that Virginia was ranked lower in adjusted defensive efficiency than WSU last year.
The truth is, last season's defense was more than adequate, ranking 46th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Teams who ranked lower than that defensively who received at-large bids to the NCAA tournament include George Mason, Tennessee, Washington, Villanova, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Xavier, Penn State, Marquette, Missouri, Notre Dame and Arizona.
No, they weren't playing Bennett-level defense. But that clearly wasn't what was holding last year's team back; it was the offense, which ranked 89th in adjusted offensive efficiency and only sixth in the Pac-10 in conference play. Because of that, I found some fans' incessant whining about the state of the defense and its role in WSU missing out on an at-large bid to lack proper nuance.
Unfortunately, there is no such lack of nuance this year. The defense really does stink: Through four Pac-12 games, against just one team in the top half of the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency, the Cougs have allowed a miserable 1.13 points per possession, and are ranked 155th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
No matter what you think about Bone's defensive strategies -- and I'd rank playing a 2-3 zone for 30 minutes against Colorado as one of the worst coaching decisions I've ever seen, something I deconstructed in Cougar Sports Weekly on Monday -- I believe the explanation isn't even that complex: Departed starters DeAngelo Casto and Klay Thompson, who have not been adequately replaced, covered a multitude of sins defensively that are now being exposed.
When comparing last year and this year, a few things stick out.
First and foremost, the Cougars are allowing a higher percentage on twos. If you can't defend your paint, you've really got nothing as a defense. Last year, the Cougars were second in the Pac-12 in two-point percentage against; right now they're 12th, and have dropped from 77th nationally to 151st.
This is where the departure of Casto, one of the most gifted shot blockers ever to play at WSU, is felt. The Cougars' block percentage is all the way down to 7.4 percent (238th) from 11 percent (70th) a year ago, and as Casto got better at knowing when to aggressively pursue a shot he could actually get and hang back on the ones he couldn't, his mere presence caused many offensive players to change their shots.
But don't discount the loss of Thompson, as well. Klay ranked in the top 20 percent nationally in block percentage -- higher than the Cougars' more heralded defensive guard, Marcus Capers (3.1 to 2.4). He also was second on the team in steal percentage, so it's no surprise that the Cougs are forcing fewer turnovers.
All told, Klay Thompson was a much better defender than most people gave him credit for, and that shows up in the two-point percentage and the three-point percentage, which also is significantly worse this year. Thompson was great at playing that corner wing spot in the 2-3, using his length to bother a lot of perimeter shots.
Under Dick and Tony Bennett, we got used to defense having a plug-and-play quality. That's clearly not the case under Bone, as this coaching staff has failed to adequately replace the production of both Casto and Thompson through either personnel or scheme.
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