PULLMAN – Twelfth.
When you’re in a 12-team league, it has an awful ring to it, but that’s the expectation for the Washington State basketball team of Pac-12 media forecasting the conference.
More than an idle prediction, it seems a repudiation of WSU coach Ken Bone’s regime at WSU. But as Bone points out, the Cougars haven’t given outsiders much reason to believe.
“We have nothing to prove we’re any better than last year,” Bone says. “We’ve talked about it as a team, and it’s a huge challenge to us. We’re anxious to go out and see if we can’t prove we’re better than people think.”
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Bone’s tenure has yielded a conference record of 26-46, and his fifth year could be telling for the program’s future. Now the former Seattle Pacific coach is making a major stylistic change aimed at pulling the Cougars out of a malaise that saw them finish tied for the bottom of the Pac-12 with Oregon State.
As last season developed, Bone began to feel that the Cougars had outgrown a sagging, conservative defensive approach.
“I think the more aggressively you play, the more confidently you play,” he said. “In a number of games, it seemed like we were the passive team. I don’t want us to play that way.”
Too, he thinks it doesn’t fit not to play aggressively on defense while trying to attack at the other end of the floor.
At any rate, the Cougars are now moving to a half-court pressure scheme, in hopes that it will reverse a trend in which they went 1-10 in games decided by five or fewer points in 2012-13.
“It fits our personnel,” says senior guard Royce Woolridge.
“It’s the way we played at SPU,” said Bone, “and the way we played at Portland State and the University of Washington (where he was an assistant).”
Dovetailing with the move was the hire of defense-minded Rod Jensen, 59, who earned his coaching chops from 1983 to 1995 assisting the rugged defenses of Bobby Dye at Boise State. Bone watched one of Jensen’s camps almost 30 years ago and recalls, “I was in awe of what they were doing defensively.”
Last season’s numbers suggest Jensen has his work cut out. WSU ranked last in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense at .468.
Bone and his players describe Jensen similarly. Says Woolridge, “He’s crazy-energetic. He’s a great teacher, and he knows what he’s talking about. We love coach Jensen.”
But do the Cougars have the players to make it all work? They lost the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Brock Motum, the focal point of the offense. And it takes athletes to extend defensive pressure.
“I think our top seven, eight, nine guys are pretty good athletes,” says Bone. “Are we the most athletic in the league? I would say no. Are we athletic? I would say yes.”
As for the departure of Motum, who averaged 18.7 points, Bone says, “I don’t think anybody can score 20 a night, but we have a few more guys that can score between eight and 14, and sometimes that’s harder to defend.”
Two players bear watching: One is freshman Ike Iroegbu, a point guard, whose development will be important because WSU went without a true point a year ago, and sometimes paid the price in turnovers.
Iroegbu’s contribution became magnified when Bone booted JC transfer Danny Lawhorn from the team, the second straight year he dismissed a point guard.
Then there’s the long-awaited arrival of Demarquise “Que“ Johnson, a 6-foot-5 player recruited by Washington and Gonzaga who picked the Cougars but didn’t meet NCAA freshman academic standards, requiring him to sit out of games and practice last season.
Johnson incurred a stress fracture of the shin over the summer and only recently was cleared to return. At that, his health will be monitored closely.
“It seems like it’s taking forever to get back,” said Johnson, whose last competitive action was at Westwind Prep in Arizona in 2012.
“He has a chance to be a great player,” says Bone. “He can shoot it, and he can slash. He can score in multiple ways.”
Woolridge’s scouting report on his teammate: “He’s a dangerous scorer. Big body, he can shoot the ball really well and handle it really well. He’s going to cause a lot of problems for people guarding him this year.”
Bone, asked who his best player is, says he’s stumped, mentioning candidates like Woolridge, guard Davonte Lacy, Johnson and big man D.J. Shelton. He trusts that in year No. 5, that will prove to be a happy problem, not an ominous one.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org