One of the things I love about college basketball is exactly the opposite of what so many people love about college football: One game does not define a season.* And Saturday's game against Washington doesn't need to define WSU's season, either.
*At least, not until the NCAA tournament, during which entire careers are defined by the smallest sample size imaginable. Remember how John Calipari couldn't win with freshmen? Remember how Roy Williams was a choker who couldn't win the big one? Fans of a certain age will remember people saying the same thing about Dean Smith. So, yeah.
Still, we're getting to a point in this season where it's not just one game anymore. Here are some rambling observations from the Cougars' conference opener.
What to make of this team's problems in close games? The Cougs have now lost five games, four of them where the outcome was in the balance in the final minutes. And in three of those games, the team made critical mistakes down the stretch that cost them their chance to win.
Some might say this team just doesn't know how to win. If you've been around here for very long, you'll know I don't believe in stuff like that. I believe in respecting randomness -- the closer the game, the more opportunity there is for something crazy to determine the outcome of the game.
Better teams keep games from getting close in the first place, and for whatever reason, this team has a habit of doing things that keep it from being able to put teams away. Against Pepperdine, it was an inability to cope with a sick and ineffective Brock Motum; against Texas A&M, it was uncharacteristically terrible defensive rebounding; against Washington, it was getting in a 17-point hole that they didn't dig all the way out of until there were seven minutes left in the game.
Then, there's the execution factor. Turnovers down the stretch played a role in all three losses, and against Pepperdine and Washington, there was an incredible lack of execution on critical possessions. Nowhere was that more clear than in the befuddling decision of DaVonte Lacy to go for two when a three was clearly in order at the end on Saturday.
Is it going to get better? I don't know -- I think some of this has to do with not having a steady point guard to rely on. I also know this is better than the alternative, which involves getting run off the floor, because at least if the game is close you've got a chance. And I have to hope that if the Cougs get themselves in a close position again, that randomness will fall on their side for once. Remember, these guys are a Pepperdine tough runner, Texas A&M deep 3-pointer, Gonzaga tough runner and a couple of contested Scott Suggs jumpers away from being 12-1 with an overtime shot at at top 10 team.
But like I said -- you play a close game, you roll the dice ... and this team has come up snake eyes just about every time so far.
I was pretty stunned by Washington's ability to make Brock Motum mostly irrelevant. Credit Lorenzo Romar for having a fabulous game plan and discredit the Cougs' ability to adjust. The Huskies were ultra-focused on Motum, extending their defense to nearly insane degrees to deny him the ball. Coupled with intentionally slowing the game down to conserve energy while on offense -- we noted in the preview that this is the slowest Romar team ever -- the Huskies were able to generally maintain their activity on that end of the floor and do just enough to squeak out a victory.
Typically, extending the defense to such degrees would leave a team exposed to dribble penetration, but Romar gambled that the Cougs couldn't make them pay. He was right -- I only need a few fingers on one hand to count the number of times a WSU player was able to beat his defender off the bounce. Some of that was passivity, but some of it is simply personnel. Even one penetrating guard would have made a huge difference.
Motum didn't really help himself, either. He allowed the Huskies to frustrate him and was content to mostly drift to the perimeter. With Desmond Simmons guarding him the vast majority of the game, the Cougs needed to adjust on the fly and figure out ways to simply get the ball to their 6-10/250 center in the post against the 6-7/220 forward, put there to deny the ball with his quickness. They couldn't, and it limited Motum's effectiveness.
I think it's a strategy other teams can employ going forward, and it's going to be on WSU to adjust.
I'm a little depressed that it took a career night from Will DiIorio and a bunch of transition baskets to have a chance to beat Washington. Not really much else to say here -- mostly just wanted to note it for the record. Sigh. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what DiIorio brought to the table. I make no secret of the fact that I'm not his biggest fan -- I generally don't see the utility of a guy with a shooting guard's body and the skill set of a center.
DiIorio, though, showed that he might have a little more skill than that. I obviously don't expect him to hit 3 of 4 threes every night, but he really doesn't have to -- he just needs to hit them enough to make teams actually pay attention to him when WSU is on offense. He's still a liability on the glass against bigger players (one rebound in 25 minutes -- zero of them defensive -- just isn't going to cut it from your 4), and his usefulness against large front lines (such as Arizona and UCLA) is going to limited, but if he can do what we saw on Saturday with some regularity, I'm not opposed to 15 minutes a night from a guy like that.
Royce Woolridge and D.J. Shelton each posted individual offensive ratings under 50 in the game. They continue to be something approximating useless on that end of the floor. This is a game that was prime for Woolridge to do some scoring, but he could only manage 1-of-6 from 2 and 0-of-1 from 3 with one trip to the free throw line, one assist and one turnover. Shelton was 1-of-5 from 2 with a pair of turnovers.
I'd be remiss, though, if I called the night a complete loss for them. Shelton was a terror on the defensive glass, pulling down nearly half of the Cougs' defensive rebounds in his 21 minutes; Woolridge came up with three steals. So, I'm not totally throwing them under the bus ... but man it would be nice to get something on both ends of the floor from them.
Last thing: At what point do we start to wonder about whether Ken Bone can actually see this through? Maybe you're already past that point. I was heading to that point when Reggie Moore was dismissed without a viable replacement having been recruited for four years, then passed that point when Bone came out with a zone against Kansas.
Saturday didn't do much to quiet those concerns. For example, failing to execute in the halfcourt in a close game once is unfortunate. Seemingly repeatedly failing to be able do it for four years is something else entirely. I'm not out to start a "fire Ken Bone" campaign, but I haven't seen him elevate the play of his team on a consistent enough basis to become entirely convinced that he's still the solution.
And this is from a guy who advocated -- hard -- for WSU to hire him after Tony Bennett left.
Just some food for thought.