PULLMAN – There weren’t too many cracks in Washington State’s defense during Sunday’s rivalry win over Washington.
Kyle Smith hopes he can say the same thing about the Cougars on Thursday night after playing UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
The sample size may be relatively small, but there’s enough of one to conclude that Washington State’s defensive production endures a massive dip whenever the Cougars play on the road. It’s a reasonable concern for Smith considering his team closes the regular season with five of its final seven games away from Beasley Coliseum before traveling to Las Vegas for the conference tournament.
WSU (14-10 overall, 5-6 Pacific-12 Conference) begins the challenging stretch against UCLA (13-11, 6-5) at 8 p.m. Thursday.
That the Cougars are 0-4 on the road in conference games also points to a larger trend. Home teams are 46-18 in Pac-12 play – a 71.9 winning percentage – after going 9-1 last week.
“We’ve been able to defend really well at home, and playing with a little sense of urgency,” Smith said. “And some of it, I think (is) our depth. You’ve got to have a little more depth on the road (for) foul trouble. We ran into one buzz saw against Stanford, they just drilled us good, but some other ones I thought we competed well, and we had moments where we just had lapses that turned tight games into extended (leads), then we hung our heads a little bit.”
From a depth standpoint, the Cougars are in better shape than they have been since conference play started in early January. Guard Marvin Cannon and forward Tony Miller weren’t available to Smith the previous time WSU went on the road, but both have returned to the Cougars over the past two weeks.
Deepening the bench should help, but tightening the defense is still the focal point for Smith.
“We’ve just got to get mentally tougher, play better,” he said. “I think we’re comfortable in the spot where I can share some data with them where, ‘Here’s what we do on the road, here’s what we’ve got to get better at to give us a chance.’ ”
For example, the Cougars are holding opponents to 44% from the field at home, but just 54% on the road. There’s an even larger disparity in 3-point defense: opponents are shooting 24% from beyond the arc in Pullman, 38% at home.
Given those numbers, it’s not surprising opponents are scoring 67.2 points at Beasley Coliseum and 78.7 at home.
“Defensively, we just haven’t been good at all,” Smith said, “so we’ve got to find a way to – that’s what I’ve been saying all year, we’ve got to defend, rebound, take care of the ball. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to have a chance.”
Getting to the free-throw line in Pac-12 road games has also proven difficult for WSU. On average, the Cougars attempt 20 free throws per game at home and just 13 on the road. In games at Colorado and Utah, WSU went to the line a combined 12 times – something it has accomplished in 19 individual games this season.
“Some people believe in that myth, that maybe you get a better whistle at home,” Smith said. “Whatever it is, I think people shoot more free throws at home. That’s definitely an area – we’ve been impatient, though, I don’t think we’ve given it a chance. I think we get sped up on the road. I think we’ve brought some good efforts, but kind of been impatient. … We’ve got to make a better effort to get paint touches, either with the pass or with the dribble.”