WSU HOOPS

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Feels good to have that monkey gone

Posted by Jeff Nusser on January 21, 2008

You know, it might be tempting to look at yesterday’s game and wonder why the No. 8 team in the country couldn’t beat a middle-of-the-pack conference team any more easily than it did. That’s probably how the rest of the country will look at it.

But given the history of the last half-decade against said team, and given what happened in the college basketball world Saturday … well, let’s just say any win is a good win when it involves Oregon and, well, a win.

We’ve been wondering for a while how the Cougs would hold up to being the hunted rather than the hunter. Last Saturday, this team clearly wasn’t ready for that role. We hoped they would learn from UCLA’s intensity and their own loss of composure in the face of adversity.

Last night might be the first sign that they did.

Oregon came out keyed up, playing with a confidence that can only come from beating a team 13 consecutive times and a desperation that comes from feeling that a promising season is slipping away. And while we certainly can continue to be concerned with those slow starts — seriously, what is so difficult about making a layup in the first five minutes of a game? — the way the Cougars withstood the Ducks’ best shots time and time again to emerge a winner is huge, in my book.

Let’s not forget: This Oregon team once was ranked No. 11 and has beaten three ranked opponents this year — two of them on the road. There’s talent there. It might be streaky and poorly coached talent, but talent nonetheless.

I’m no genius, but it seems like it would be Basketball Coaching 101 to figure out what your most advantageous match-up is and exploit the crap out of it. Ernie Kent must have missed that class, because it turns out his reputation as a marginal game coach who does his best coaching in the summertime when he’s sitting in the living rooms of potential recruits is well deserved.

Maarty Leunen might have finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds, but I can honestly say that outside of some early 3’s and an offensive putback or two in the second half I felt like Leunen was a virtual non-factor in the game. Maybe he had more impact than I noticed, but it sure seemed like for a guy who provided matchup problems galore for the Cougs he didn’t have much of a hand in the outcome of this game, especially when it mattered most.

Kent lamented after the Washington loss that his players didn’t do a good enough job finding Leunen when he had the hot hand. He probably will feel the same way after watching video of tonight’s contest, but at some point a coach has to point the finger at himself for either not training his players to recognize the best way to win a game, or not calling better offensive sets. Either way, the bulk of the blame rests with Kent.

Of course, some of the “blame” also rests with Daven Harmeling, Aron Baynes and Caleb Forrest, all of whom took turns trying to contain Leunen. As I referenced in the game thread, Harmeling really took Leunen out of the comfort zone he was in early. Then, Baynes did a great job moving his feet to stay in front of Leunen when he attempted to drive to the basket, and Forrest gave the team 10 strong minutes. Baynes takes a lot crap from me for silly fouls, but he really played a tremendous game yesterday — probably the best game he’s had all year.

The only thing left for Oregon to do was what it typically does best: Jack up shots from all over the floor and hope enough of them fall to pull out a win. Not enough did, as the Cougars generally did a masterful job closing out on 3-point shooters and harassing drivers, the best example being Robbie Cowgill’s block of Bryce Taylor’s drive with under a minute to go and the Cougs’ clinging to a one-point lead.

But, as it usually does, defense only tells half the story. The defense gets all the pub when it comes to Washington State, but the reality is that this is a talented offensive club that is scary if Derrick Low is doing what he did yesterday. Anyone who’s read this site for any length of time knows how much I’ve begged Low to be more aggressive on the offensive end, especially early in games. The shooting spree against UCLA seems to maybe, possibly have translated into long-term change.

Low was aggressive from all over the floor against the Ducks, doing what he did so well last year. In fact, I think yesterday was about the perfect example of what I’d like to see out of him: 16 shots — nine 3s, seven 2s, five free throw attempts. He was fearless from long range, but took advantage of any creases the defense gave him to bully his way to the basket with an array of floaters and finishing moves around the basket. I don’t expect him to score 27 points every game, but if he has the mentality that he had yesterday going forward, he should be able to score 16-18 points consistently, something this team needs.

Now, it’s back to the road. The Cougs haven’t had a lot of trouble lately with Arizona, but that game could spell trouble because of Jarryd Bayless, a quick, slashing point guard of the type that has given WSU so much trouble the last couple of years (think Aaron Brooks last year). And Arizona State will be looking to prove it’s not a fluke in its first real test of the year at the arena where the Devils have won 11 straight games.

But confidence is high, not only because of the first win over Oregon in years, but because this team truly seems to be improving and adding a new dimension each week.

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3 Responses to “Feels good to have that monkey gone”

  1. drpezz said

    Looks like the AP and coaches (on the polls) agreed with one of your earlier assessments that WSU’s loss to UCLA does not define the team. Good work!

  2. Bradley Logan said

    Nuss,

    I’m loving the website. Great comment about the need for Derrick Low to be more aggressive offensively. In fact, at a recent ZUU CRU meeting, Tony Bennett told some of us that, since during the UCLA game, he has been encouraging Low to do exactly that . Low has often been too much of a team player, and just needs to be a bit more selfish at times and take those shots.

  3. Nuss said

    Thanks Brad! I didn’t know you were a Coug until today.

    I wish there had been a ZZU CRU when I was there. Our version of the ZZU CRU was limited to us making animal-like noises such as “BOOOOO!” and “YOU SUCK!” towards Kevin Eastman. How things have changed.

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