WSU Basketball: Where defense goes to die

USA TODAY Sports

No, the offense hasn't been pretty. But the defense has been so, so, sooooo much worse.

To listen to Ken Bone tell it, the blame for this faceplant of a WSU basketball season rests nearly exclusively with the team's inability to put the ball in the bucket.

After USC, Bone observes: "We were right in there with whatever, four or five minutes to go. And we had a hard time converting, a hard time scoring field goals down the stretch with the exception of about a minute or two. That four or five minute stretch felt like it was the difference in the game."

Bone ignores: WSU allowed 1.13 points per possession to the Trojans -- THE TROJANS -- in the second half before WSU started intentionally fouling.

Or how about this one.

After OSU, Bone observes: "We were getting shots and making shots but it was like we were either scoring or we were turning it over, and you’ve got to play better basketball than that on the offensive end to win these type of games." (Mind you, the Cougars produced a once-a-season shooting performance -- effective field goal percentage: 61.7 -- in this "type of game." Additionally, their overall turnover percentage of 18.6 was hardly the stuff of disasters.)

Bone ignores: WSU gave up 1.14 points per possession to the Beavers.

Of all the problems I have with Ken Bone right now, this continued focus on the offense -- the persistent lament that so many of these games would be so different "if only we could have scored another bucket or two" -- is one of the biggest. This failure to acknowledge even in passing that his team's stunningly awful defense has played a key role in so many of these losses is one of the great irritations when it comes to following this team.

It's not an overstatement to say the Cougars are an absolute embarrassment on the defensive end of the floor, dead last in the conference in efficiency in Pac-12 play. They're giving up 1.08 points per possession after last night -- Pac-12 median: 0.99 -- and in addition to getting run over by OSU and USC, the Cougs also allowed Stanford, Arizona and UCLA to each have one of their best performances of the year.

It's not for lack of effort; they do play hard. But even a modicum of defensive execution against Oregon State last night or USC last week would have gotten the Cougs two more wins, to say nothing of what a well-timed stop would have done in a number of the other close losses.

And yet, rarely does Bone pay any public mind to the train wreck on that end of the floor.* Fans who worried shortly after he was hired that he would forsake the hard-nosed defensive identity forged under the Bennetts have been proven right, as WSU's scoring prevention has been somewhere between mediocre and downright terrible for three of Bone's four seasons.

*His comments after UCLA stand as a refreshing exception.

We were getting shots and making shots but it was like we were either scoring or we were turning it over, and you’ve got to play better basketball than that on the offensive end to win these type of games -Ken Bone, after a game in which his team shot 14-of-28 from 3 and turned it over on less than 20 percent of its possessions

I won't go so far as to say that Bone doesn't care about defense -- that line of thinking is just plain ignorant -- but every shred of evidence available to us suggests that Bone fails to accept that "a bucket prevented is as good as a bucket scored," given that most every move he makes is designed to score buckets rather than prevent them.

In terms of personnel, if you can score, you play: Reggie Moore, Faisal Aden and Brock Motum ... all absolutely terrible defenders. Yet all have played extensive minutes under Bone. In the case of Moore and Motum, the minutes played in pursuit of offense probably directly impacted their defensive effort. Aden never even displayed a passing interest in playing team defense, something that I'm sure didn't come as a surprise to Bone. Heck, even recruiting Aden in the first place solely because Bone perceived a need to add a scorer either to complement Klay Thompson or replace him shows just how low of a priority individual commitment to defense is.

And rather than demand execution in a particular defensive philosophy, Bone has vacillated between man-to-man and zone in an effort to cover up his offensive players' deficiencies on that end of the floor. It's rarely worked, save for the season he had a nearly mature future NBA player on the wing and one of the best shot blockers in school history in the middle. That season, the defense ranked a respectable 46th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, leading me to hope more of that would be in the future. (Guess which team, by the way, had the most success in Bone's tenure?)

At this point, though, that's a pretty extreme outlier that appears to have been driven by talent and little more. Coaches who coach defense well will consistently have at least solid defensive numbers. Having a good defense in just 25 percent of your seasons renders a pretty inarguable verdict against your ability as a defensive coach.

What's so puzzling about Bone's offense-centric approach this season is that we know -- and have known for some time -- that this is an incredibly limited offensive squad. Yes, Motum is a nice centerpiece. But the team has no point guard. The shooting is shaky (last night's 14-for-28 outlier notwithstanding). Nobody possess the athletic ability to consistently get to the rim. And largely because of all this, Motum's production has fallen off a cliff.

And yet, Bone continues to try and squeeze water from a rock, remaining obsessed with the offense.


I'd be shocked if Bone does anything different over these final half dozen games than what he's always done, but in the interest of actually offering solutions, here's what I've got.

I realize the options for the rotation are limited at this point, especially now that Mike Ladd appears destined to miss significant time with some sort of leg injury (based purely on how gingerly he was moving on the leg during the telecast). But maybe one option is playing Junior Longrus more than five minutes a night gives Motum and D.J. Shelton a chance to be fresh at the end so that they can score buckets. Maybe it's an option to send James Hunter into the game to knock some heads and pick up five fouls in four minutes.

Or maybe it's an option to devote a significant amount of practice time to properly hedging ball screens, going over screens, or bumping and going under screens. (Because they're either not doing it, or Bone and his staff are the worst teachers of all time. I'm going to choose to believe it's the former.)

Or maybe it's an option to actually bench a guy for a lazy or stupid rotation.

Any one of these things has to be better than what's currently happening. While Bone can't change the inherent offensive talent levels of his players, these defensive emphases are matters of strategy or discipline. They can be enacted immediately.

But I don't expect it. Instead, I expect that the offensive genius will be sitting down with film tomorrow saying to himself, "You know what? I'll bet this set could help us get another bucket or two ....."

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