Marcus Moore, one of the greatest players in Washington State University basketball history, has been shooting the ball like a blind man in a snowstorm.
One year after pouring in a career-best 18.2 points per game, Moore's scoring average has slipped to 13.6. He's scored eight points or less four times, including a scoreless night at Southern Utah. He's shooting just 38 percent from the field, thanks partly to a 22-percent mark from 3-point range.
Critics are quick to point to the deliberate offense and defense-first approach of new Cougar coach Dick Bennett as key factors in Moore's offensive meltdown, and Moore is quick to agree. Yet he's even quicker to say that Bennett's strategy is best for WSU in the short run -- and, in the long run, even best for Moore himself.
"Everyone wants to score... but this is how we have to play," Moore says. "This is how we have to defend. Our coach has given us an identity. We need that."
Moore adds, "It has to be the best approach, because last year we were 7-20."
Moore, a senior point guard from the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, is keenly aware that he ranks among WSU's all-time leaders in losses as well as in points, assists, steals and 3-point field goals. The Cougars have posted losing records seven straight years and finished dead last in the Pacific-10 Conference in two of Moore's first three seasons, so he takes a measure of satisfaction from WSU's current eighth-place position and 9-10 overall record.
"We're winning. I think that's the biggest stat of all," Moore said. "I'm fine with not scoring 20 points a game, or getting 40 points in a game. That's OK with me. If I score 13 or 14 points and we're winning, who can complain about that? We saw what scoring 25 will do."
Actually, the Cougars are a respectable 6-7 when Moore scores 25 or more points. Too often, however, Moore's top scoring efforts have come in games where he fired away from all over the court, trying to rally a team desperately short of gifted scorers.
Case in point: last Saturday's 61-57 loss to ninth-ranked Arizona. Moore enjoyed one of his few good shooting nights this winter and scored a season-high 29 points -- but no other Cougar scored more than seven points. The Cougars rank among the national leaders for fewest points allowed, but they're also among the national "leaders" for fewest points scored. Thomas Kelati ranks second on the Cougars with just 9.3 points per game.
"Obviously, we're being more deliberate, letting the game come [to us] a little more, so we're not getting as many possessions in the game," Moore says. "You're always hunting for a good shot instead of just a shot. That cuts down on possessions.
"All my shots [in past years] haven't been good shots, but they've been shots that have been going in for me."
Sometimes. Moore is a career 39-percent shooter, including a career-low 35 percent last season, when he was often hindered by an ankle injury that led to surgery and nine games on the sidelines. Without Moore, WSU was 1-8.
Moore denies it, but Bennett wonders if Moore has fully recovered from the ankle operation.
"He just looks like he's hurting when he runs," Bennett says.
Moore says the only thing hurting him is all the defensive pressure he faces from opponents.
"With our deliberate style, it gives them a chance to set up and send a double team my way, or send a third guy," Moore says. "In the past, I could come down and let it go when I want, or make a play when I needed to. I kept the defense on their heels."
Moore insists that he will benefit as a pro from Bennett's emphasis on defense and from playing in Bennett's structured offense. Still...
"It's definitely hard for a guy who, for three years, had been able to come down and if he had an itch to shoot, he could shoot," Moore admits.
Bennett, a former NCAA Final Four coach at Wisconsin, made it clear from the start that Moore needed to greatly improve his shot selection. Moore hasn't always satisfied the coach in that regard, but Bennett says it's not for lack of effort.
"Almost everything he does is out of good intentions," Bennett says. "Not at all selfish."
Indeed, the affable, ever-smiling Moore is one of the most popular Cougars with teammates and other WSU students. He has rarely suggested the slightest bit of regret at coming to Washington State, the only NCAA Division I school that continued pursuing him after national powers backed off due to his shaky academic record in high school.
"You should have come and played for me!" USC coach Henry Bibby shouted half-jokingly at Moore during WSU's upset win over the Trojans last month at the Spokane Arena.
"You could have had me!" Moore yelled back.
Now, one year after he considered leaving school a year early to turn pro, Moore says he's glad he stayed at WSU because of the lessons he's learned on and off the court. His grades have never been overwhelming, but Moore says he has learned to value his education ("I wasn't very serious about it when I first came here") and is determined to pick up a few credits down the road to earn his liberal arts degree.
"I can't wait to walk down that graduation line," Moore says with a smile. "That will make my mom so proud. Me, too."
Publication date: 02/05/04