Last night, before the Cougars tipped off what would eventually become an overtime loss to Cal, Ken Bone finally did something that has been percolating for some time: He benched both Jordan Railey and Royce Woolridge in favor of Junior Longrus and Ike Iroegbu. They joined DaVonte Lacy, Que Johnson and D.J. Shelton in the starting lineup.
This excited me! That's actually pretty neat, since like most of you, it's hard for me to get very excited about Cougar basketball anymore. By any objective measure, both Iroegbu and Longrus have been superior to Woolridge and Railey. Observe:
(stats via the awesome kenpom.com - if you love college basketball, you should totally buy a subscription)
While I'm fairly certain Ken Bone gives zero cares for the kinds of stats listed above, he also is obviously aware that Railey and Woolridge were underperforming, acknowledging more than once in both his weekly press conferences and coach's shows that they were struggling to great degrees. Even as he continued to start Railey, Bone played Longrus more minutes after giving Railey every opportunity to prove himself, only to watch him struggle. Every game.
But Bone stuck with both Woolridge and Railey in the starting lineup for a long time (I'm sure we can speculate about the reason(s), but I won't do that here) despite getting similar -- and in some cases, superior -- production in all these peripheral areas from much younger players.
It's been frustrating, but, for what it's worth, the reticence to change is actually pretty normal, I think; in the absence of overwhelming evidence, change doesn't generally come easy for coaches. Guys like Pete Carroll -- coaches who are unafraid to quickly make bold changes when it comes to personnel -- are rare; most coaches seem to draw firm conclusions about players from their own early observations and then are slow to move away from what their eyes told them early on.
Call it ego, or confidence, or whatever, but it's not in and of itself a bad thing. Coaches are well paid because they are presumably pretty smart, and beyond that, they are privy to things we aren't, such as practice habits and in-depth video analysis. Most of the time, I think they really do know a lot more than we do. Sometimes, their patience is rewarded (Connor Halliday's development last season comes to mind), and other times, it's painfully obvious why a change wasn't made sooner (looking straight at you, Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst).
Unlike fans, coaches know that change for the sake of change isn't productive, so I understand when a coach such as Ken Bone waits a tick longer than we'd like to make a change.
However, knowing when to pull the plug on something that isn't working is important too, especially when there's a boatload of objective evidence to suggest the coach is merely stuck in a rut where it's mostly a stubborn refusal to change that's driving the decision making. Unfortunately, that's where Ken Bone seems to too often reside.
Something caused him to finally make both moves (actually, we know why the move was made to Longrus last weekend -- Railey asked to be benched -- but we don't know about Iroegbu) last night, and while the season being lost some time ago makes the timing of the move a little odd, better late than never, right?
Alas, there's a reason most of us continue to be pessimistic about the coach; the early hope gleaned from the starting lineup last night faded as the night wore on, as both Railey and Woolridge played starters' minutes over Longrus and Iroegbu despite continuing to be profoundly ineffective (again, via kenpom.com):
I just want to make sure this is clear: Railey played 28 minutes, is seven feet tall, and grabbed exactly zero of the approximately 30 shots that were missed while he was in the game. Meanwhile, Woolridge threw up another 1-for-6 performance to actually lower his 29 eFG% in conference play entering last night's game.
Some might argue that neither Longrus nor Iroegbu set the world on fire against Cal, either, so getting annoyed by their lack of playing time is just piling on a coach who likely is a dead man walking, anyway. But c'mon -- Railey and Woolridge gave you exactly what they have given you all season. It's like Bone continues to trot them out there thinking whatever exceptional coaching he's offered up in practice that week is going to finally produce the magical result.
Which is where I just get so frustrated with Bone's process. That's what has been my main complaint over his tenure.
If, as demonstrated by who got the minutes last night, Bone doesn't actually believe Iroegbu and Longrus have passed Woolridge and Railey as players -- which is obviously false, but let's set that aside for a moment -- then why did he start them? Is he trying to take the pressure off Woolridge and Railey, hoping coming off the bench somehow makes them better players? I'm not aware of any study that throws that premise under the microscope, but it does not seem from any evidence that I've seen that a player benefits solely from being removed from the lineup.
Think about baseball: Guys get "moved down in the order" all the time under the guise of "rebuilding confidence." How often do you see a guy just all of a sudden figure it out? In reality, moving a guy down simply gives him fewer at bats to ruin your offense. Which is what moving a guy to the bench should be in basketball.
I suppose that sometimes moving a guy to the bench can allow him to play with a personnel grouping that fits his skills better, but that's not even what was done last night: The lineup of Woolridge/DaVonte Lacy/Dexter Kernich-Drew/D.J. Shelton/Railey was what played the most together. The only shift from the normal primary lineup was Kernich-Drew in place of Que Johnson; that seemed to be because Johnson had some conspicuous defensive breakdowns and Kernich-Drew was drawing the primary assignment on Justin Cobbs, whom the Cougs obviously felt could be bothered with length. Replacing one one-dimensional catch-and-shoot guy with another one-dimensional catch-and-shoot guy was not a move made to accommodate Woolridge and Railey.
So, Ken Bone either A) Thought he could get more out of Railey and Woolridge simply by having them sit out the first four minutes of each half, or B) Was fed up enough to make a change, but when faced with a close game, he went with his "veteran" guys because he just couldn't pull the trigger and trust a freshman and sophomore.
I suppose there's a third option -- that he thought the defensive value of Woolridge and Railey vastly outweighed Iroegbu and Longrus to a degree that it overcame the offensive deficiencies -- but if you watched Woolridge fail to close out on a handful of made threes and watched Railey hack his way to four more fouls, I don't know how anyone could conclude that, especially when Bone himself has acknowledged that Longrus is one of the smarter defenders on the team.
Whatever the reason, the result was that a couple of guys who have been bad all season played their usual bad games for the majority of the game over a couple of guys who have proven to be better over the course of the season -- and probably within the game itself -- however marginally.
And in a game that was decided in overtime, those margins make all the difference.
Maybe the next coach will understand that.