HOOPS: For Cougs season will hinge on defense

HE DIDN'T SHOW it, not while the game was going on. But Cougar assistant Ben Johnson must have felt like jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear. Washington State was busily draping a crimson blanket of defense on Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs had no answer. And one other truism came to light, the Cougars this season will go only as far as their defense takes them.

Offense gets the headlines. Scorers are feted, their defensive accomplishments listed as afterthought.

But Johnson, the lone holdover from the Dick and Tony Bennett years, a period marked by the Pack defense, knows how defense can win basketball games. He watched WSU put up a pair of 26-win seasons and Big Dance trips in 2007 and 2008 from teams who knew how to lock down and deny.

Unless you have scorers all but impervious to drought, unless you are ultra-deep with players who can consistently fill up the nylon cord, unless you are one of very few college basketball teams in America, defense is what consistently wins games, whether it's written about or not. And it is defense that so often feeds the offense. Take the 81-59 clown stomping of Gonzaga the other night.

THE END CAME early, with twelve minutes left in the game. At the rim, Klay Thompson went to the summit, blocking 7-footer Robert Sacre with backside help from Charlie Enquist. On the other end, Thompson drilled a three pointer, raising his arms to the heavens as Beasley exploded.

Gonzaga had nothing left. Shoulders slumped, a defeated look running from the players on the court to GU's bench. WSU never let up on the defensive end, going for steals and crowding shooters until the very end.

But it's far too soon to pronounce the Cougs contenders, not with their newfound 2-3 zone still in its infancy. The last two games, yes, WSU has looked impressive against K-State and GU. But the reason why, the recurring theme running through both games, was zone defense. And WSU has yet to prove they can bring it on D every night.

The first five games of the season, all wins, the defense wasn't there. Even though WSU won, they gave up far too many open looks. If Portland had knocked down just some of their open looks in the second half, the Cougars would be 5-2 right now.

But strong defense changes everything in basketball, and it open up everything else. It doesn't matter how you get there, if it's man-to-man, a 2-3 zone or a box and one. It just matters that you get there.

THOMPSON HAD seven steals against Gonzaga – seven. He led the team in rebounds (six), assists (six) and points (24). It is no coincidence the bulk of Thompson's points came in the second half, when WSU's defense shifted into overdrive, turning a 30-24 lead at the half into a margin of 29 at one point.

Marcus Capers, he scored two points, so hardly anyone mentioned his name in the aftermath of the win. But his primary responsibility on defense was Zag leading scorer Steven Gray, who came in averaging 20 ppg. Capers and crew snatched away his comfort zone, and he managed but seven points on 2-of-10 shooting.

WSU forced 25 Gonzaga turnovers, yes 25. And as the Cougars continued to snatch away Gonzaga's spirit, Gonzaga in turn became a step slow on the offensive end, and that led to fewer offensive rebounds, one of the more consistent WSU bugaboos this season.

Patrick Simon's 11 points, including three treys, were keyed by the resurgent Cougar D on the other end, as was the work of Faisal Aden, playing on a tweaked knee, who scored 14 points in limited minutes. And the list goes on..

IT IS ENTIRELY possible a "let down" game is in store Friday against Texas Pan-American. Maybe it's a game WSU wins, but doesn't look all that good doing it. You see it all the time college basketball and football after a big win, following an even bigger buildup. Northwestern (5-0) barely escaped Texas Pan-American earlier this year, 77-71.

And there will be nights Thompson and Aden aren't hitting their shots – look no further than the loss to K-State. There will be nights when Reggie Moore isn't making crisp passes and good decisions. Yes, there will be nights when the WSU offense just isn't in sync.

But if WSU executes on defense, they'll remain right in the thick of things – both in the game at hand, and on the season. And somewhere, Ben Johnson, the most defensive minded coach on the WSU bench, will be smiling. Even if he doesn't show it.

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