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Archive for January, 2008

GAME THREAD: California at No. 9 WSU

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 31, 2008

Cougars (17-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-10) at Bears (11-7, 2-5)

Beasley Coliseum (Pullman, Wash.), 7 p.m. PT
TV: None

Oregon State notwithstanding, Cal is about as close to an easy opponent as you’re going to get in the Pac-10 — which, once I start telling you about Cal, ought to tell you just how freaking tough the Pac-10 is this year.

The Cougs pretty well dominated the Bears last year, and you can chalk that up to one factor: They were horrific from beyond the arc in those two games, just 7-of-29 and 6-of-22 — 25.4 percent. And as was on full display on Saturday, a team shooting the 3 poorly against the Cougs is a team that usually loses.

One problem: Offensively, these Bears are much better than they were a year ago. Their offensive efficiency (what’s that?) has jumped from 105.1 to 112.8, and their effective field goal percentage (huh?) has jumped from 51.2 to 54.8.

Quite simply, they’re a better offensive team this year because they’re a better shooting team, and they’ve proven they can score on anybody — they’ve exceeded a 100 efficiency rating (the benchmark for solid offense) in every game but three, including all Pac-10 games but the one against UCLA, and they have exceeded 50 percent in effective field goal percentage (another benchmark) in every game but four. That’s not likely to change against WSU, unless they have an uncharacteristically bad shooting night.

But while we can wring our hands over what Cal might do offensively, trust me when I say that the Bears will be rightfully more worried about the Cougars are going to do offensively. Cal is a bad defensive team, something that ought to be obvious from the fact that despite all the offensive fireworks, the Bears are 2-5 in the conference and just a few games over .500 overall.

Cal has yet to even really come close to stopping a legitimate conference opponent. (Oregon State doesn’t count.) While UCLA and USC were around 107 in offensive efficiency, Oregon (116.5), Arizona (121.0), Stanford (121.4) and Arizona State (126.3) all exceeded a 116 efficiency against the Bears. That’s not just bad defense; that’s terrible defense. And as we’ve said here all year, the Cougs are one of the best offensive teams in the country, something that’s lost on most everyone because they don’t score a lot of points per game. Their overall offensive efficiency rating is 114.8 — ninth nationally. They’ve been especially beastly at home.

The moral of the story? The Cougs are going to score points and they’re going to win, but this is the kind of game I wouldn’t bet on if my life depended on it. The Cougs are favored by 11, but the score could be 70-65 as easily as it could be 70-55. It all depends — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — on whether Cal hits some 3s.

Other keys that could influence the flow, if not necessarily the outcome, of the game:

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Posted in Game Threads | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

Think they hate Huggins now?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 30, 2008

In my first life as a blogger, I wrote that Kansas State fans should be grateful for the year they got from Bob Huggins and quit crying about him bolting for West Virginia.

After Huggins recruits Michael Beasley and Bill Walker led the surging Wildcats to a stunningly convincing win over previously undefeated No. 2 Kansas, KSU fans should be sending Huggins love letters.

In droves.

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Looking rediculous-er and absurd-er by the moment

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 30, 2008

We all had a nice laugh last week when we read Ernie Kent’s quote touting Oregon fans as “different,” and not “fans that turn into hatred and all that kind of stuff.” Well, nobody’s really laughing now, as Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny has had to publicly apologize to pretty much everyone ever associated with the UCLA basketball program for comments directed by students at — surprise! — Kevin Love during Thursday’s game.

To Kent’s credit, he got on the microphone and pleaded with the crowd to be nicer to the Trojans on Saturday. But, c’mon: Can you imagine Tony Bennett or Ben Howland or Lorenzo Romar or Coach K or Roy Williams or … anyone else having to do that? There have been a number of coaches who have had to ask for a fan to not throw stuff at the playing surface, but I can’t remember one ever having to plead with the masses for better behavior.

It’s admirable that Kent wanted to give his fans the benefit of the doubt, but it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

Oh, and if you’d like a first-hand account of what actually happened, check this out. Rated PG-13. (You’ll also wonder, after reading it, if any of those students actually realize why what they did was wrong.)

Posted in Around the 'Net, News | 5 Comments »

Set up for a strong, strong finish

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 29, 2008

There’s something just a little bit disconcerting about the way the Cougs have played at times this year, given their lofty ranking and the way they were outclassed by the two teams they have played that have truly superior athletes, and the close nature of some other games.

But when I get too down, I just remember this: No other major conference college basketball team — not one, not even a bad one — has played as many true road games and as few true home games as the Cougars. They have played nine true road games, and six of them were against teams that either are ranked or have been ranked in the Top 25. And they’ve only played five true home games — out of 19. Scenes like the one to the right have been way too few and far between for a program of our ilk. Among tournament-contending teams, only Butler has played as many road or neutral games as the Cougs. And the Bulldogs are in the Horizon League.

To come away from that schedule with just two losses really is a bigger accomplishment than a lot of people will give them credit for.

Think about it. We just played five of our first seven Pac-10 games on the road and came out of it 5-2. Yes, we were slapped around by UCLA and Arizona, but we survived all the others. In only one of those games can we say that it really looked like the Cougs didn’t come to play, and that’s really saying something in a game with 20- to 22-year-old kids who do — believe it or not — have other things going on in their lives.

It hasn’t come without a price. In watching the end of the game on Saturday, one thought just kept coming to mind: This team is tired. Really, really tired. And Kyle Weaver said as much after the game.

But playing seven of their final 11 games regular season games at Beasley Coliseum is exactly what they need for a strong finish. Why? Because the top six teams in the conference other than the Cougs still have to make a trip to Pullman! That, my friends, is huge.

And consider this: Even with what they’ve gone through, Joe Lunardi still has WSU projected as a No. 2 seed and Jerry Palm has the Cougs projected as a No. 3. The various RPI approximations have them ranked either No. 9 or No. 10. The message? A strong finish bolstered by playing at home can push the Cougs into unheard of territory. If the home court advantage helps as much as I think it might, this team could end up pushing for a No. 1 seed. I feel comfortable saying that: The committee showed with UW a few years ago that it will recognize a team with a not-so-elite record that plays in a brutal conference.

So, get fired up Cougs. We still are in great position to win the Pac-10, just one game back of UCLA, and can put ourselves in an even better position with a sweep this weekend against Cal and Stanford. I believe the best part of the season is still in front of us.

Posted in Breakdowns | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Did I mention that it starts and ends with defense?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 27, 2008

There are a few things I want to highlight in the wake of yesterday’s awesome nail-biter, but I can’t really think of a cohesive way to put it all together, so on this non-football Sunday, you get a notebook-style recap.

So, about those keys to the game

If you didn’t believe me yesterday before the game when I said that defensive rebounding would be the key, consider this: How different would the game probably have been if ASU had come up with three more offensive rebounds? That’s what the Sun Devis would have needed to hit their season average, and it probably would have resulted in a Cougar loss.

Tony Bennett thought it was so important that he put Robbie Cowgill back in the starting lineup. Cowgill showed his coach that his faith was well placed, as he was one of the big difference makers in that department.

We still didn’t see the re-emergence of the midrange jumper that made him such an underrated weapon last year — a function of a zone defense, which won’t give up many of those — but we did see the return of the guy who is active on the glass and weakside help defense. He was everywhere yesterday, picking up five rebounds and a couple of blocks. He topped the 30-minute mark for the first time since Washington, which tells you what Bennett thought of what he was doing on the floor.

Gosh, it feels good to write that about Robbie, a truly good guy we all want to see succeed.

Kyle Weaver is the man

Weaver probably won’t get any votes for Pac-10 player of the year because he doesn’t score enough points, but his ability as a basketball player was on full display yesterday. Without him, we don’t win that game — for multiple reasons.

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Posted in Game Analysis | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

GAME THREAD: No. 6 WSU at No. 24 Arizona State

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 26, 2008

Cougars (16-2 overall, 4-2 Pac-10) at Sun Devils (14-4, 4-2)
Wells Fargo Arena (Tempe, Ariz.), 4 p.m. PT
TV: FSN

The over/under on hearing ASU referred to as “this year’s Washington State” from the amateurish FSN announcers is probably about 30 seconds. And the comparisons seem viable to the naked eye, what with the Devils playing a similar tempo to the Cougs (60.5 possessions per game for ASU vs. 59.8 for WSU), employing a hard-nosed halfcourt defense and having a similar “out-of-nowhere” season similar to what the Cougs experienced last year.

But really, that’s where the comparisons ought to end. ASU is led by an explosive freshman, James Harden. He leads the Devils in minutes, points and steals, and is second in rebounding and assists. Most remarkable, I think, is that he’s shooting 54 percent from the field — as a 6-foot-5 guard. Pretty incredible. Limiting him doesn’t necessarily equal success for opponents — as Xavier found out — but it sure helps. He supposedly has a groin issue right now, but if you look at that picture, that sure doesn’t look like a guy that’s lost any explosion.

One thing Harden is extremely skilled at (try not to cringe) is getting to the free throw line. In fact, thanks to Harden and big man Jeff Pendergraph, the Devils are 14th in the country in free throw rate. This will likely be the difference in the game.

As we all know, it pretty much begins and ends with defense with the Cougs, and there are two things that bear a strong correlation to the Cougs’ success in defensive efficiency: Effective field goal percentage (no surprise, given their vulnerability to the 3-point shot) and free throw rate. Simply, the more often their opponent goes to the line, the worse their defense. Don’t believe me? The Cougs’ two worst defensive performances were those in which they gave up the highest free throw rate (at UCLA and at Arizona), and the next two worst free throw rates given up were two games that were a lot closer than they should have been (Boise State and Air Force).

The other key tonight? Keeping ASU off the glass. The Sun Devils’ offense absolutely thrives off offensive rebounds. Three of their four worst offensive rebounding games resulted in three of their four losses. The bad news is that the Cougs are not a particularly good rebounding team. We hammered Robbie Cowgill how poorly he’s played as of late; the Cougars absolute must have a performance from him today on the order of what he did against Gonzaga, when he was active and all over the defensive glass.

If the Cougs can keep ASU away from the free throw line — which also will mean no foul trouble for Baynes — and grab the lion’s share of defensive rebounds, they’ll win.

Posted in Game Threads | 10 Comments »

Sometimes in the Pac-10, this just happens

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 25, 2008

Can we start from the premise that Arizona is a talented team that began the year ranked No. 17? Because if we begin from there, last night wasn’t really all that hard to understand.

We can kill ourselves analyzing what went wrong — and there obviously were some things that need to be addressed — but really it just came down to this: We got mowed down by an unbelievably hot shooting team.

It would be one thing if it was due to lack of effort or intensity, as it seemed to be against UCLA. But that just wasn’t the case last night. The Cougs played hard. They worked hard, both offensively and defensively.

Sometimes in the Pac-10, this just happens.

I won’t blame the officials, as some people will be wont to do. Should the No. 6 team get more than 12 free throws — the last eight of which came when the Cougs were already down by 18 with less than six minutes to go — especially when the other team gets 23? Probably. Bob Weiss made the comment that there were a couple of questionable calls in the first half where he felt like WSU should have gone to the line, and here’s the thing about being aggressive toward the basket: If you’re getting rewarded, you generally continue to do it. If you’re not rewarded, you generally don’t, and that’s how it starts to snowball.

When it snowballs and the other team hits 87 percent of those 23 attempts? That’s tough to beat. When the other team goes 20-of-23 from the free throw line and shoots 12-of-21 from 3-point range?

That’s impossible, no matter who you are.

There also will be a big hullabaloo about Derrick Low’s awful night, which I’ll address shortly, but consider this: The Cougs posted a 103.5 offensive efficiency rating (what’s this?) — not on par with their season average of 116.2, but good enough to win on most nights, since they generally hold their opponents under 100. Arizona posted a rating of 123.

It would have taken an offensive performance on par with the ones against Mississippi Valley State or The Citadel to keep up with Arizona last night.

Now, that doesn’t excuse Derrick Low’s absolutely horrendous performance. And I don’t classify his performance as horrendous because he only scored five points. It was horrendous because he allowed his early struggles to derail his aggressiveness. I don’t know if he was tired or sick — some guys on the team have been battling the flu and all of his early shots were short — but a scorer simply cannot allow that to happen. To not score a point until the game is well out of hand because you’re taking shots and missing them is one thing; to not score a point until the game is out of hand because you’re not even shooting the ball is something else altogether. It’s something that’s inexcusable.

Additionally, this team must get more from Robbie Cowgill. I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing or what, but he is bringing very little to the table right now. I know he’s not counted on to be an offensive force, but even just a little something would be nice. At this point, he more or less gets ignored by the defense when he’s on the floor — hence the move of Daven Harmeling into the starting lineup — and worse, he’s not contributing much else in terms of production, either.¬† Last night was a new low: 14 minutes, zero points on three shots, two rebounds, no assists, no blocks. In conference play, he’s averaging 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds. He has gone from exceeding 30 minutes in five of the first eight games — including the wins over Baylor and Gonzaga — to exceeding it just once in the last 10.

On a lot of nights, it won’t be that much of a problem, because many teams in the Pac-10 are moving to lineups that feature just one big man for the bulk of the game. Oregon does it. Arizona did it. But against teams that have more than one active big man — Cal and Stanford come to mind — we’re going to need something from Cowgill, and not just solid defense. We need some rebounds. We need some blocks. We need some 15-foot jumpers.

But a lot of good things happened last night offensively, too. The team came out hot offensively¬† for the first time in a long time. That’s huge. Kyle Weaver had another good night, hitting a pair of 3s. Harmeling was a spark in the starting lineup. Our ball-screen offense led to a number of easy buckets at numerous different times when the game was still within reach. All of those are positives that should not be overlooked.

So let’s not lose perspective about what happened last night. The referees did not cause a 12-point loss. Tony Bennett did not get outcoached. The players didn’t tank it.

The Cougars just got outplayed. And when a team is as talented as Arizona, sometimes that’s just going to happen.

Posted in Game Analysis | 3 Comments »

GAME THREAD: No. 6 WSU (16-1) at Arizona (12-6)

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 24, 2008

McKale Center (Tucson, Ariz.), 5:30 p.m. PT
TV: FSN

I don’t have a lot of time to write today, so I’m going to keep the preview short.

Arizona is ticked off that WSU has ascended to the levels it has. The Wildcats aren’t ranked, and they would like to do something about it. However, their chances of making this happen, to be frank, aren’t real good.

Yes, they have the fact that they are playing at home going for them. But this WSU squad has won three of the last six against Arizona and the last two in Tucson. There’s no fear factor there.

Arizona is a good offensive team most of the time … except when it plays good defensive teams. The ‘Cats have an overall offensive rating of 108.2 — 62nd in the country. But check their offensive ratings against quality defensive opponents: Kansas (93.5), Memphis (90.6) and Arizona State (89.0). Bodes well for the Cougars tonight.

Of course, the x-factor will by freshman sensation Jarryd Bayless. He’s precisely the kind of guard that can give WSU fits, a la Aaron Brooks last year. He’s clearly not as savvy as Brooks, but he possesses the same kind of jets and ability to penetrate and kick out. The Cougs will have to be careful not to let him find Chase Budinger on the perimeter, who can burn them with 3s tonight.

One more thing to note: So much rides on foul trouble. Arizona’s Jordan Hill gets in it as bad as anyone out there, and if Baynes shows as much discipline as he did against Oregon when he guarded Leunen, that could be a real advantage for the Cougs.

Posted in Game Threads | 40 Comments »

What do people really think about the Cougs?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 24, 2008

Jim Moore, everyone’s favorite Coug columnist, had this little tidbit buried in his column on Wednesday from the P-I sports banquet. I found it interesting, so I thought I’d pass it on to you.¬† Enjoy.

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Posted in Around the 'Net | 1 Comment »

Ridiculously laughable and absurd quote of the day

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 24, 2008

This ran in yesterday’s Seattle Times at the bottom of Bob Condotta’s Pac-10 notebook. It was in reference to a question about whether Oregon fans would save some special “cheers” for Kevin Love, an Oregon native who spurned the Ducks for UCLA, which visits Mac Court tonight:

“Oregon fans are different,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. “They are not fans that turn into hatred and all that kind of stuff.”

Uh, right. Try telling that to my buddy, who was spit on repeatedly at an Oregon/WSU football game during the run to the Rose Bowl in 1997. Or try telling that to the WSU football players who talk about ziplock bags of urine being dumped on them as they come out of the tunnel. Or try telling that to me, who was almost knocked over and then fought with by a fan in a concourse while covering a women’s basketball game as a working journalist at Mac Court.

Nothing against Ernie or most Oregon athletic department employees (who are nice people) or the Oregon fan I work with (who is a great guy) but most hardcore Oregon fans that I’ve come into contact with at venues have been classless jerks.

Share your favorite Oregon fan story here!

Posted in Around the 'Net | 8 Comments »

 
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