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‘Kills’ have given Washington State incentive to play defense under Kyle Smith

UCLA forward Cody Riley,  left, and Washington State forward Aljaz Kunc  fight for a loose ball  Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Pullman. (Pete Caster / AP)

PULLMAN – So far, Kyle Smith has made good on one of the only promises he delivered last spring when formally accepting the job at Washington State: teach the Cougars how to play defense.

Before Smith could do that, though, he had an important prerequisite: make sure they were excited about playing defense.

While they’re only two games into a long, grueling Pac-12 Conference schedule, the Cougars have already seen their defensive numbers skyrocket, carrying an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 96.6 (102nd nationally), according to KenPom, after finishing the 2018-19 season with a rating of 110.2 (284th).

WSU carries a 10-5 overall record after 15 games, as opposed to the 7-8 mark Ernie Kent’s team held through the same span last season. The Cougars are coming off a 1-1 homestand during which they conceded 136 points in games against USC and UCLA. For comparison, the Trojans and Bruins combined to score 180 points at Beasley Coliseum a year ago.

Relative to years past, WSU’s defense has been exceptional – an ode not only to the strategy Smith and his staff have brought, but also to the effort the Cougars are putting into a part of the game that was severely undervalued a season ago.

Playing time is still the most important reward for good defense, but Smith has added another incentive to ensure the Cougars aren’t slacking on that end of the floor: defensive “kills.”

Three consecutive defensive stops, of any kind, are worth one “kill.” The objective, Smith said, is to generate at least six “kills” in a game. The Cougars scored eight of them in a 79-71 overtime win over UCLA Saturday in Pullman – Smith’s first Pac-12 victory as WSU’s coach.

“Six is a really good mark for a game. You give yourself a good chance to win if you do,” Smith said Tuesday during a news conference. “It’s hard to do and to be able to go over six – obviously, it’s five more minutes (with overtime) – but to be able to do that, it’s hard to get clean stops. Three in a row without free throws or made baskets, that was great.”

The bench often comes alive when the Cougars are on the verge of a defensive kill and players form an “X” with their arms when the team secures its third straight stop. In the past, Smith’s teams have used different props and gestures to signify a kill – “we’ve had a skull and crossbones up there,” he said, “kind of like a strikeout in a baseball game (where) you throw the ‘K’ up.

“That’s one of those things our guys can really get behind. I know we’re good when I hear the bench start yelling, ‘Get a kill.’ That’s kind of where we stay focused.”

Smith adopted the concept while he was coaching in the Ivy League at Columbia and carried it to San Francisco, where he transformed the Dons into a top-tier West Coast Conference team by overhauling their defense.

He believes it’s a way to keep players engaged on one end of the floor even if they’re committing lapses on the other end. The Cougars haven’t been efficient on offense through two Pac-12 games, connecting on just 47 of 138 attempts from the field (34%), but their offense never seemed to impact their play on defense.

WSU forced 20 turnovers against USC, limiting the Trojans to just 45 shot attempts, and 16 against UCLA.

“Team stuff, team goals, five guys out there,” Smith said. “It takes the focus off yourself. Lose yourself in the team. You’re going to miss shots, you might turn it over, but stay locked in to what we’re trying to do on that other end.”

Smith and the Cougars take their new defensive prowess on the road this week, facing Cal (6-8, 0-1) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Stanford (12-2, 1-0) on Saturday at 3 p.m.

“I reminded our guys last year’s road trip (to California) was a net minus-55,” Smith said, referring to WSU’s 98-50 loss in Palo Alto and 76-69 loss in Berkeley. “We haven’t played on the road enough, in a while either. I just want to keep our focus. … The biggest game’s the next game.”