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On 'quitting' and the process of winning

A number of people have left comments at various times on various posts about various people -- players and coaches -- "quitting" on the UCLA game on Thursday night.

Just like I think a coach's ability to determine the outcome of a single game is vastly overstated, this concept of "quitting" on a game is something I never really totally buy into as all that important on a single-game basis. The whole point of playing a game is to win, and once it's clear you're not going to win, it's only human nature to throw in the towel. I'm not saying it's necessarily right, because the teacher in me says you can learn something until the very end of every experience. But I do understand how and why it happens.

Instead, I tend to look more at trends over a season, and I think you'd have a pretty tough time convincing anyone that these guys have quit on the season or tuned their coach out. Because of that, I didn't really think much more about it until later Friday morning, when I read this comment from selahcoug:

I also wonder if Bone is losing the team a bit, especially the Bennett guys who were brought in for defense? It may be much of the same situation Wulff had when he first came aboard.

It got me thinking. What does it mean to lose a team? What does it look like? Is it different than quitting on a season? Here's what I came up with:

  1. Players looking like they're not trying very hard.
  2. Players looking like they lack the commitment and discipline required to carry out the coach's directives successfully.

The two are related, but subtly different, I think. You can have one without the other, but when they come together ... watch out. (Hello, Jay John!) For the first time, it seemed like those two things showed up for more or less an entire game Thursday night. It was especially tough to watch because we saw so little of that over the past six years.

And while we've tried to downplay comparisons here, at some point, comparisons become inevitable.

I would submit to you that while the process of getting this team up to a potential championship level looks dramatically different than the process we saw under the Bennetts, it's not inherently worse and doesn't doom us to a time-warp of destiny back to the Paul Graham era.

Now, I feel like I need to start with a bit of a disclaimer. Much of what I'm about to say oversimplifies both Dick Bennett and Ken Bone. Both coaches are far more nuanced than how I'm going to paint them from now until the end of this post. But for the purposes of comparison and contrast, it's sort of necessary to accentuate the differences to make the overall point.

One thing about Dick Bennett is that he more or less coached everyone the same way. Either you got on the train, or you didn't play -- didn't really matter who you were. And if you made a mistake, especially on defense, you could expect to get pulled. It seems harsh to some, but it's inarguable that it instilled discipline -- a key component of the Bennett system. The tough stay and blossom, and the mentally weak head elsewhere. Tony largely had the same M.O., although he seemed a bit more touchy feely than his father.

In the Bennett process, the early results can sometimes be ugly, but rarely do his teams ever look like they're not trying. I submit that's at least partly because if a guy doesn't try his hardest, he's on the bench before a fan can say, "Hey, these guys aren't playing hard!" There's a hunger on the bench.

Bone seems to be different. He seems much more permissive in the name of building confidence. It sounds bad, but I don't think it necessarily is -- I lean more toward the Bone style in my own leadership. But when you do it the way he does, it creates an equally huge difference in what the building process looks like.

Leaders lead with the end in mind, and in Bennett's process, he's molding them into what can best be described as a communist machine with interchangeable parts, where experience often trumps talent because execution -- on both ends -- is paramount. With that sort of end goal in mind, ruling like a benevolent dictator probably is the way to go.

But Bone's end goal isn't the same as Bennett's. His offense involves more freelancing, and his ideal defense is predicated on chaos. It's as opposite from Bennett as can possibly be. Bennett wants you to think when you're on the floor; Bone would rather you didn't. Besides, where Bennett's system relies mostly on execution, there's a certain level of ability required to make Bone's system work, meaning you can't just grab a guy off the bench and expect it to yield the same results because of effort alone. That's a gross oversimplification, but you get the picture.

To that end, I found this quote from DeAngelo Casto following the UCLA mess interesting:

"It just comes down at any given point to heart and passion," he said. "You have to have heart to play this game, you have to care about the game, you have to care about your teammates, have to care about the fans – you have to care about what’s going on every single play."

Everything he said is true -- especially the last part. Every play matters.

The problem when you coach Bone's way, though, is getting players to believe that -- at least initially.

Here's what I mean by that. Dick Bennett sends the message that every play matters from the moment any guy steps onto his floor. Take a play off? Take a seat on the bench. When you tolerate as many mistakes as Bone seems to have over the course of this year -- when there seems to be no (or little) penalty for screwing up a play -- the implicit message is sent that not every play matters.

Now, this is the time at which the Bone haters will shout,  "Amen, brother! Preach it! We need some discipline in here!"

Not so fast. I would submit to you that it's just a different way to get to the same end result of winning basketball. Here's an analogy:

Dick Bennett is like the parent who tells his kids they can't do something, and when they ask why, he says, "Because I said so. Trust me, it's better for you." He then does everything within his power to keep the kid away from the bad thing, including punishing them for even sniffing around the bad thing. The kid resents it at the time, but as he grows into an adult, he realizes dad was right all along, and thankful that he was spared the hurt. (If he hasn't rebelled first.)

Bone is like the parent who says, "You shouldn't do that." The kid says, "I don't care, I'm going to find out for myself." Bone says, "Fine. But you probably should listen to me." And then the kid makes the poor decision anyway, bad things happen, and the kid comes back and says, "You were right." (Hopefully.)

Which is the better parenting style? You'll find great parents who swear by both methods.

In Bennett's way, the players become mentally tough by dealing with his impossibly high standards. In Bone's way, through the players' experiences -- in both their successes and failures -- they learn. 

Now, here's the critical thing, in terms of basketball.

In Bennett's way, you know what you're eventually going to get. And there's a certain level of comfort in that. But there's also seemingly a bit of a ceiling there as well. One of our readers likes to point out that Dick Bennett took a team to a Final Four. That's true, but people sometimes forget that those guys were a No. 8 seed, one that was 18-13 before the tournament. It's not like the Bennett system was dominating the Big Ten. (In fact, if you wanted to argue that we witnessed the most successful version of the Bennett system from 2006-2008 at WSU, you'd have a great argument.)

Bone's system, on the other hand, is not unlike the one you'd see at North Carolina, Kansas or (gulp!) Washington. It's a system that has an undeniably higher ceiling, and a system that wins championships.

Of course, the great debate is whether it can win championships at WSU. We all have our opinions on that (looking your way, ptowncoug3012!), but the reality is we just don't know yet if we can -- or can't. Nobody's ever really had the pieces in place to legitimately try it the way Bone does now.

But just as there were growing pains with Bennett, there will be growing pains with Bone. It's just that those pains will sometimes look a lot uglier. I mean, even when we were losing to Oklahoma State by 50, we could always say, "Yeah, but the boys played awful hard!" They didn't play hard on Thursday. But I guess the point is that it doesn't necessarily portend doom.

Am I excusing away Thursday's mess? No way. It was inexcusable.

But look at what happened Saturday. Like most of you, I didn't see the game, but by all first-hand reports -- from Bud Nameck to Vince Grippi to Grady -- the team played hard, and they were committed to carrying out the game plan, which would seem to mean that they did not quit and have not quit on the season. And the result was a season sweep over one of the most disciplined and tough teams in the conference, one that was in second place after beating Washington on Thursday.

Even if you're not Bone's biggest fan, don't you have to at least entertain the notion that Saturday's performance was due, at least in part, to what they learned from Thursday? My guess is, the conversation on Friday started something like, "Now do you see why it's important to play hard on every possession?" And finished with, "Yes, coach."

Just because a team full of freshmen and sophomores mailed it in for a night doesn't mean they've quit on the season or the coach has lost the team. There are times when it signifies problems to come, but there really was no reason to think that was the case with these guys.

I know it's hard, but try to be patient with the process. Ken Bone has been successful everywhere he's been. A coach has to stay true to who he is, and we owe him the opportunity to let him do it his way, even if it's different than what some of us might prefer.