PULLMAN – The buzzer had sounded. The players had celebrated, showered, left. Head coach Ken Bone was finishing up his media responsibilities.
The buzz of Washington State University’s 74-64 National Invitation Tournament second-round win over Oklahoma State on Monday night was wearing off. Reality was setting in.
Curtis Allen, Ben Johnson and Jeff Hironaka, the three WSU assistant basketball coaches, were in the Beasley Coliseum locker room. Less than 48 hours remained until the next NIT game would begin.
Looming was Northwestern, which plays an out-of-the-ordinary style of offense based on principles developed long ago by Princeton coach Pete Carril.
The Cougars needed to be prepared.
One of the rarely seen parts of college basketball occurs between games. No one gets by anymore worrying only about their team, a la John Wooden. Time, hours and hours of time, is spent in preparation for an opponent. All of it is put together with video clips, practice plans, reports.
It’s called the scout and, at WSU, the defensive part of it is in the hands of the assistants. They take turns preparing the team.
Johnson was up, but it was already obvious that would change. When Bone returned, it was official.
Hironaka, the veteran of the group, with years of knowledge of the Princeton offense, would do the Xs and Os. Johnson would focus on the individual Wildcat players. A plan was put together. The quartet went their separate ways.
The 54-year-old Hironaka headed to his apartment. He got back at 11:15 Monday night. The computer came out, five Northwestern games already downloaded by senior manager Mike Simonson were called up. Hironaka went to work.
On the other side of town there was a knock on a door. It was opened. Within a minute, unbeknownst to Hironaka, his job just got tougher.
Putting together and implementing a scout in 45 or so hours isn’t easy. But Hironaka, a 21-year veteran of coaching college basketball, including seven years as a head coach at Seattle Pacific, wasn’t fazed. Worried, yes. Like a lot of basketball coaches, Hiro, as he’s known, is always worried.
“What they do is tough to defend,” Hironaka says of the Wildcats. “We wanted to take them out of their comfort zone because that offense is definitely based on being in the comfort zone.”
By 3 a.m. Hironaka, who lives alone, had made some progress. It was time to sleep. He was back in the office at 6:30. He had 91/2 hours until Washington State’s lone pre-Northwestern practice.
While Hironaka was breaking down video, figuring out how to defend the Wildcats’ myriad back cuts, slipped screens and post passes, Bone was just hearing the news about his starting center, DeAngelo Casto.
The night before Casto had become the third Washington State basketball player this season to have an interaction with local law enforcement concerning marijuana.
By the time the day was over, he would be the third to be cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession. By early afternoon, he would be suspended indefinitely.
Bone spent much of the day dealing with the fallout. But there was one thing he didn’t have to worry about. With Hironaka working the Xs and Os and Johnson the individual breakdowns, the prep work was taken care of.
“That’s when you need to count on assistant coaches that have a feel for what’s going on,” Bone says. “Our guys, especially Jeff being an ex-head coach, understood the demands on me that day.
“Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to worry about what was going on in the basketball office. I knew (Hironaka) was in charge of the scout and it was going to get done.”
Someone, Hironaka doesn’t remember who, tells him the news. Casto, the Cougars’ starting center and a two-time member of the Pac-10’s all-defensive team, wouldn’t be playing.
“It changes a little bit, because Brock (Motum, Casto’s backup) is definitely different from DeAngelo,” Hironaka says. “We were preparing as if Brock was going to be the center.
“That all changed the very next day, but we were preparing as if Brock would start and Charlie (Enquist) would back him up. The philosophy would be the same, but we weren’t sure it would be as effective with those two. DeAngelo is obviously more athletic.”
With Casto guarding the post, either low or the Princeton “pinch” spot (at the high corners of the key), the back cuts would have to be done through more pressure than any other Cougar could supply.
Without him, some adjustment would have to be made out front. Hironaka had to tinker with the schemes.
Before practice starts, the players gather in the locker room for video study. The assistant coach in charge of the scout shows clips of the opponent’s offense and how the Cougars will defend it. Tuesday’s film study was longer than usual because of Northwestern’s style of play – and because Hironaka wanted all the bases covered.
“I’m probably more concerned about everything they do,” he says, “which I know I shouldn’t be. You can ask those guys, my scout looks like a manuscript. I’m trying to put everything in there, mostly for my own benefit, in case something happens during the course of the game.”
“The difference between a Hiro scout,” says junior guard Marcus Capers, “and the other coaches, they let us know 10 or 15 of their sets. Hiro lets us know every set that they run. Every play that the team has, Hiro knows it.
“He watches 20, 25 hours of film on each team. It’s not this year. He might go back a few years. If the coach was at another school, he’ll probably watch them, too.”
Practice goes on without Casto in the planning process. When it’s done, the players take their video clips and head out. The coaches go back to work.
Hironaka was up late again Wednesday breaking down a couple more games. He was back in the office early the next day, only taking time for his daily run.
The game was scheduled for an 8 p.m. start, but game days also include a short practice, called a walk-through or shoot-around, depending on the coach.
Defending the Wildcats would be a challenge, especially without Casto.
But at midmorning there were inklings Casto’s status might be changing.
Athletic director Bill Moos was contemplating what he termed “new information,” about Casto’s marijuana citation. Before the team gathered for the walk-through Moos had acted. Casto would play.
“He has to come in, we have the video cut-ups we presented to the team the day before,” Hironaka says, “so Coach Johnson took DeAngelo in there and let him at least see the video.”
More tinkering is needed. But not in the post defense.
Surprisingly, despite Northwestern’s offensive complexity, Casto’s role was simple. He had to deny the high post and pressure the ball.
“Fortunately for us, the scout fit him to a T,” Bone says.
After the walk-through, Capers says everyone was ready and confident. They knew their roles – and what Northwestern wanted to do.
“He knows percentages and tendencies, I’m not saying the other coaches don’t, but he’s pretty accurate on what he tells us,” he says of Hironaka’s plan. “If something different happens, everyone is shocked.”
Two hours before tip, Hironaka arrives at Beasley. He goes to the whiteboard and writes the defensive keys to the game. It’s Bone’s way to let the assistants take that aspect with his input while he takes the offense. But even Bone needed some help this week.
“Every hour or so I would pop my head in (Hironaka’s office),” Bone says, “asking, ‘What do you see on the other end?’ Even though he’s focusing mostly on what the opponent is doing offensively, he’s also taking a peak on what they are doing defensively.”
The stress was wearing. Bone remembers one Wednesday pop-in. Hironaka was at his desk, the computer on, his eyes closed. He was catching 30 winks. The other 10 would have to wait. Bone asks a question, Hironaka opens his eyes and it’s back to the video.
By game time, everything is ready. The players filter in, take off the ever-present headphones, and head out to shoot. The crowd begins to arrive, Beasley to fill up. There are last-minute instructions. The players take the court.
Two-and-a-half hours later they are back. The hollering commences again. Two words, New York, home of the NIT semifinals, are uttered often. WSU had survived, using a dominating first 15 minutes and some late breaks to win, 69-66 in overtime.
Casto is a presence on the defensive end, with a couple blocks and eight rebounds. He chips in 11 points. The distraction brought on by his citation is not over, but the game is.
So how did the Cougars do?
“We did a decent job of defending the back cuts,” Hironaka says of key element of Northwestern’s offense. “They didn’t get a whole heck of a lot of them. We did a decent job at times against their zone stuff. At times.”
“We were ready,” Capers says. “A lot of the stuff we did caused them problems, frustrated them.”
The win goes on Bone’s record, but he’s more than willing to share the credit, talking about the crowd, the players’ resolve, the contributions of all the assistants. But two days later he singles out Hironaka.
“Jeff’s been at this so long, there’s not a whole lot he hasn’t seen,” Bone says. “He studies the game more than you and I put together. Basketball is his life, he loves it and he dissects it.”
And, just minutes after the Northwestern game ends, that life began again. There’s another game in six days.