WSU HOOPS

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Archive for February, 2008

In praise of the Cougar defense, rebounding – and Robbie Cowgill

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 29, 2008

Given the stakes, last night was our most important win of the season.

To go on the road and not just beat a team we’re supposed to beat, but annihilate them, is huge. I know home teams have had their fair share of troubles in this conference, but the selection committee won’t look at that. They’ll look at the fact that the Cougs now have a 14-2 record away from Pullman with true road wins over USC, Gonzaga, Baylor, Arizona State and Boise State — all teams projected by ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi to be in the NCAA Tournament.

The best part about last night, though, is that it validated where this team was heading before the Arizona game, as the Cougs have now won five of six games and done it in a fashion that is sustainable as we roll toward the postseason.

You know that we harp on and on about defense around here. Well, last night was a defensive-minded coach’s dream. I think we all know that Cal is a potent offensive team, but let me throw some stats your way that ought to give you a pretty good idea of just how amazing last night’s defensive performance was.

This is a Cal team that ranks 17th nationally in kenpom.com‘s adjusted offensive efficiency rating at 116.9. Last night, the Cougs held the Bears to a 79.5 efficiency rating. If you don’t understand just how unbelievably dominant that is, let me translate. Last night’s game contained 61 possessions. Captain Math tells us that when we multiply 61 possessions by the 1.169 points per possession the Bears typically score, Cal will post around 71 points in a game. Last night, the Bears scored 49.

Digest that for a second. In essence, the Cougs held the Bears 22 points below their season average.

And it wasn’t a flash in the pan. In that four-game win streak, we did the same thing to …

  • USC: 111.1 adjusted efficiency overall but 88.5 against the Cougs, essentially 12 points below the Trojans’ average performance;
  • Oregon State: 95.6 vs. 92.6, 1 point below average;
  • Oregon: 120.0 vs. 96.2, 13 points below average;
  • Arizona State: 111.1 vs. 83.1, 15 points below average.

Think about that. We’re not just holding our opponents below their season averages; since the end of that miserable stretch of four losses in five games, we now have held four of our six opponents to double digits under their season average. Heck, even in the loss to Arizona we held the Wildcats below their season efficiency rating (although admittedly not by a whole lot).

That, my friends, is what we call a bona fide trend. And it ought to give you pause.

Now, I’m not a big X’s and O’s guy, so I can’t exactly tell you what the difference has been schematically, but I can tell you two things that are pretty obvious from a statistical point of view: Teams are not shooting as well on us as they were earlier this season, and they are getting far fewer offensive rebounds.

We constantly talk about getting out on shooters, which we did an exceptional job of last night, and that’s important. And I think the explanation there is pretty simple — we’re not trapping as much as we were, which means we’re not scrambling to get back into position to guard shooters on the perimeter (kinda like what you see in the NBA every night). We’re playing sound, stick-with-your-man defense. Additionally we just seem to be exhibiting a high amount of effort in getting out on shooters.

But I think the improved rebounding is one huge aspect of our defense that is being overlooked by most everyone. It’s so very important to end possessions after one shot, something we were doing a horrible job of early in the conference season. But we are doing a dramatically better job of it in winning those five of six games.

While there are other factors in play we’ll get to in a minute, you can credit one man for a lot of that turnaround: Robbie Cowgill.

Over the first 10 games of the Pac-10 season, Cowgill was averaging just 3.7 rebounds. He often looked timid — shocking for a guy that was so active last year — and we all lamented the loss of his activity around the floor. But something has gotten into him since then. In the past six games, his rebounds are way up, all the way to 6.5 a game. That might not seem like that big of an increase, but when you’re playing games that only have 55-60 possessions, three more rebounds is positively huge. He’s playing great defense and he is crashing the glass — exactly what this team needs from him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his points per game are up over that stretch, too (6.7 vs. 4.7).

But I think it’s more than Cowgill and Baynes, who is doing what he always does, which is box out like a madman with a body no one can get around. Our guards are rebounding as well as I can remember a team’s guards rebounding in quite a while, which has to be one of the most underrated aspects to this defensive turnaround. I really can think of only one viable comparison to what our guards are doing right now, and that’s the Michigan State championship teams of eight or nine years ago. We are absolutely selling out for every loose ball right now, and our guards are snatching long rebounds away from everyone. It truly is remarkable.

Now, that rebounding skill will be put to the test. This defensive turnaround happened after getting absolutely destroyed on the defensive glass by both Stanford and UCLA at home. If we can control the defensive glass on the Cardinal tomorrow — and that’s a huge if, given that Stanford is 17th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage — I think we can win that game a lot more easily than most people think.

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Posted in Breakdowns | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Best performance of the season so far

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 29, 2008

Today’s going to be a two-post day, because I’m finding as I’m writing that I have a lot to say. (Which, of course, will come as a complete shock to anyone who knows me.) Here’s the first one, a look back at last night. I’ll have one a little later on the defense.

In the wake of the Arizona loss, we were left with a number of questions floating around in our heads.

We wondered if the offensive funk against the Sun Devils and the Wildcats was an aberration or a sign of something bigger, such as tired legs. We wondered if we should simply chalk the second consecutive poor performance against Arizona to matchup problems.

Most of all, we wondered if the four-game win streak, in which the Cougs played the kind of defense that reminded us of last year, was a mirage — and if our hopes for a high NCAA seeding were slipping away before our eyes.

After last night, there should be very little doubt about the answers to those questions. And the answers are all positive.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Game Analysis | Tagged: , , , , , | 6 Comments »

That was impressive

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 28, 2008

I’ll have a full breakdown tomorrow morning, but man was that spectacular. There was a lot more to that win than just great shooting in the second half. To prove it, I’ll leave you with this until tomorrow.

Cal did not score a point in the last five minutes and nine seconds of that game.

Domination.

Posted in Game Analysis | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

GAME THREAD: No. 22 WSU at Cal

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 28, 2008

Cougars (21-6 overall, 9-6 Pac-10) at Bears (15-10, 6-8)

Haas Pavilion (Berkley, Calif.), 8 p.m. PT
TV: FSN

Well, folks, it’s go time. Three games to go in the regular season; three games to prove to the NCAA committee we deserve a 3-5 seed and not a 7-10 seed.

You know, coming up with new and original things in these game thread previews is becoming more difficult the deeper we get into the season — especially with the Pac-10’s round-robin format — so I’m going to keep it simple tonight by just giving you one offensive and one defensive key for the Cougs that if they succeed in executing they likely will succeed.

Offensive key: Get to the free throw line. There’s a pretty good correlation between opponents free throw rate — free throws attempted divided by field goals attmepted — and Cal’s defensive efficiency, which is flat-out the worst in the conference this side of Corvallis. When Cal’s opponents have exceeded 33 percent in free throw rate, the Bears are 1-8. Less than 33 percent? 14-2, including the victory in Pullman when the Cougs posted a 32.1.

This is something the Cougs have been rather good at over the past few weeks, and if they can keep it up tonight it bodes well for their chances. All the guards will need to be aggressive to the basket and bail out Cal’s porous penetration defense by just chucking up 3s.

Defensive key: Keep Cal from lighting it up. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Like most offenses, Cal’s offensive efficiency is pretty much directly tied to its effective field goal percentage, but the Bears’ correlation is stronger than most. If they’re hitting their 3s and getting easy buckets in transition, it relegates Cal opponents to simply trying to outscore the Bears. That’s not where the Cougs want to be tonight.

Since the last game wasn’t on TV, I can’t specifically address what the problem was, but I can guess based off what was going on at that point in the season. We weren’t getting out on shooters, something that had been dramatically improved until the last 10 minutes of the Arizona game. As long as Saturday wasn’t a case of tired legs, I expect us to get back to the defense we played during the winning streak, which should result in a win tonight.

Oh, yeah — and stop this guy. That will help, too.

Posted in Game Threads | Tagged: , , | 15 Comments »

Hey everybody – I’m an expert!

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 27, 2008

I truly was unaware. But don’t take my word for it. Take his (or at least his headline writer’s):

You’ll recognize that snazzy mug as that of Seattle Post-Intelligencer Go 2 Guy Jim Moore. He and I were e-mailing back and forth a little this week, talking about the team, and the result is a mention of WSU HOOPS in his column tomorrow, which is already up on the P-I’s Web site.

I get mentioned alongside such luminaries as Bud Nameck, John Blanchette, Ken Pomeroy and some guy named Tim Floyd. Pretty cool accomplishment for the site if I do say so myself. For the record, besides spouting my favorite statistics, I also said I thought this year’s team was better, largely because of its offensive prowess.

I’ve befriended Moore in the past year through our mutual Coug fandom and in collaborating with him through my work with the Washington Journalism Education Association. Many thanks to him for the shout out. He really is as good of a guy as he appears in print. And I think he’s spot on with his perspective on this year, something I’ve been advocating for all along — enjoy this ride, because you never know when it’s going to come around again.

If you’re new here thanks to Moore, have a look and feel free to stick around for a while. This is the post that was the impetus behind most of our conversation; it will give you a good introduction into what we’re all about. And this post flowed out of our conversation about potential seeding. We’ll have a preview/game thread up for Thursday’s contest against Cal, so come back for that, too.

Posted in Around the 'Net, Misc. Blog Stuff | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Let the consternation end?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 26, 2008

As we mentioned before, Tony Bennett is likely to be a hot coaching candidate in the offseason. However, the writer who covers the team closest — the Spokesman-Review’s Vince Grippi — has a feeling Bennett’s not going anywhere:

I know, I said I wouldn’t get into this until later, and I’m not going to, in any depth. But during the last couple weeks, conversations that have occurred lead me to believe coach Bennett is planning on staying here for a long time. There is more to do here, there is a new class coming in, there are seniors that are close to him, there is an affinity for Pullman and WSU, all things that will work to keep him here for a while. At least that’s how I read the tea leaves. And I’ve misread them before. But that’s my prediction. He’ll be back.

If you’re looking for a column with a little less good old fashioned journalism and a little more logic, check out this one from Bud Withers. I agree with both of them. There is more work to be done, and that means something to Tony.

Posted in Around the 'Net | Tagged: | 13 Comments »

Should we be worried?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 26, 2008

After yet another disappointing loss at the hands of Arizona and just three regular season games to go, we now arrive at the million-dollar question: Should we be worried heading forward?

I say probably not as worried as most of you are.

The fact that this team still has not learned how to deal with the bullseye on its back this far into the season clearly is disturbing. But is that prohibitive to their success heading forward? I don’t think so; we’ve seen the cold efficiency with which this team can win when it’s locked in, and I don’t see any way that laser-like focus doesn’t make an appearance come postseason time.

I know this team has no right to be bored, but it certainly seems at times like the Cougs know they’re headed to the dance and just want it to hurry up and get here already, especially since the Pac-10 title has more or less been out of reach for a few weeks.
The only major concern I have is that they’ve done too much damage to their potential seed in the tournament.

After the latest loss, Joe Lunardi over at ESPN has the Cougs slotted as a No. 7 seed — this, after having them slotted as a No. 5 after the ASU win. I’m not exactly sure how a loss to Arizona drops you two seed lines (and moves the Wildcats up two seed lines to a No. 7, too), but I’m not going to pretend I know as much as Lunardi.

Clearly, a No. 1 or 2 seed is far out of reach, but I think a No. 3 seed is still attainable. Why is that No. 3 seed so important?  Traditionally, there is a big difference between the No. 14 seed you’d face as a 3 and the No. 13 seed you’d face as a No. 4. And once you’re a No. 5 or lower and you get to the No. 12 seeds or higher, anything can (and does) happen. So getting to that No. 3 should be a very real goal for this team.

The selection committee makes it clear they don’t compare one season to the next, but history can be a good guide for what those guys are likely to do. Win out the regular season — which would include a road win over a top-10 Stanford — and make it to at least the semis of the Pac-10 tournament, and WSU would have won eight of its last 10 and finish with an 11-2 road record. Although our conference record would only be 12-6 at that point, that’s only one game worse than the 13-5 we put up last year in a considerably tougher conference en route to a No. 3 seed.

Additionally, for all the crap the selection committee has taken in the past, I think the past five years or so they generally have gotten things right and have started to evaluate which teams they think really are best at large teams. No rewarding mediocre big conference teams, no excluding a deserving mid-major because of poor RPI. And I think the same goes for seeding — remember, a lot of eyebrows were raised last year when the Cougs were given a No. 3, and we don’t have a bad loss along the lines of Utah on our resume this year.

In short, most of the goals this team had its eye on in November still are attainable. I think it’s totally doable to win the last three games — I think the way we played in the four-game win streak is much more indicative of where this team is at right now — and a run to the Pac-10 tournament championship isn’t out of the question, either. But it’s going to take a little more work at this point than we all hoped coming into the season.

Posted in Breakdowns, NCAA Tournament | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Vote for Butch!

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 25, 2008

It’s your duty as a Coug.

Posted in Around the 'Net | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

What the heck is it with Arizona?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 25, 2008

I don’t know that I would say Arizona just has our number — I’d put UCLA in that category this year, and I would have put Oregon in that category last year — but man, there is something about playing WSU that absolutely brings out the best in the Wildcats.

Longball referred to them as the “short-handed McDiva All Americans from Arizona,” and maybe that’s a part of what happens. It’s clear that Arizona coach Kevin O’Neill did a good bit of appealing to the Wildcats’ pride, and with a chance to make a very good case for their inclusion in the NCAA tournament, the weren’t about to let a bunch of nobodies from nowhere stop them. Their play almost screamed, “Washington State? Who the heck is Washington State? We’re freaking Arizona. You think you’re the only ones who can play hard? We’ll show you what it’s like to play hard with All-American talent, something you’ll never have.”

And that was the difference on Saturday. Simply, Arizona wanted it more.

Sure, we hung around for a half; despite shooting 28 percent, we only trailed by a point. As I flipped over to watch the end of Memphis/Tennessee, I actually felt pretty good. Our best offense was in front of us and despite the hot start by Chase Budinger, our defense had been very good for most of the half — remember, Arizona scored its 11th point at about the 14 minute mark, but finished the half with just 24. Pretty darn good.

But something funny happened after halftime. The Wildcats just willed themselves to a victory, while we just wilted.

In second chance points, Arizona held just a 4-2 advantage in the first half; in the second half, it was 5-0 Arizona. In points off turnovers, the Cougs held a slim 6-5 advantage in the first half; in the second half, it was 12-2 Arizona. Those are sure signs of one of two things: Either being physically dominated or being caught flat-footed after being outworked. I don’t think the former is the case; Jo-Jo and I were exchanging text messages as we watched the game, and the thing we kept coming back to is we just don’t think Arizona is a better team than we are. So the latter must have been the case, especially in terms of the turnovers. Most of them were of the sloppy variety, and those are the ones that lead to extreme advantages for the offense.

Of course, that’s just the defense, which allowed a 115.9 efficiency after not allowing an opponent to exceed 96 in four games. The offense was even worse; this was by far the worst weekend of offense we’ve seen all season. Our shooting was bad against Arizona State, but it was absolutely horrendous against Arizona — just 39 percent in effective field goal percentage. That is positively brutal. It led to an offensive efficiency rating of just 98.0, easily our lowest of the Pac-10 season.

Against ASU, I was willing to chalk it up to a bad night, especially since I felt like the shots we were getting were good shots that just weren’t falling. Against Arizona, however, not only was it a bad night shooting, but it was a bad night with decisions and schemes. Credit Arizona for doing a great job manning up — seriously, how many screens does Derrick Low have to run through to get open? — but we did not help ourselves. A perfect example is that I think we know by now what Aron Baynes can and can’t do; if his teammates all of a sudden start asking him to do things they should know he can’t do, well, in my book that’s on them and not on him.

Since both were bad for what I see as different reasons, I’m not sure what kind of reasonable conclusions we can draw from the outcomes. What I’m hoping is that this isn’t pointing to what I’m afraid it’s pointing to — tired legs. We’ll know a lot more this weekend, especially against Stanford, and I really hope I’m wrong.

Whether we should be worried going forward will be a subject of a post later today, but I do know this: Enough playing around. Let’s figure out a way to bring it this weekend, starting with some payback against Cal on Thursday.

Posted in Game Analysis | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

GAME THREAD: Arizona at No. 17 WSU

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 23, 2008

Wildcats (16-10, 6-7) at Cougars (21-5 overall, 9-5 Pac-10)

Beasley Coliseum (Pullman, Wash.), 7 p.m. PT
TV: FSN

Kind of like when the Cougs played Oregon, there aren’t a lot of mysteries here: When Arizona shoots well, it wins. Simple as that.

According to kenpom.com, Arizona has a strong correlation between effective field goal percentage and offensive efficiency. Remember, effective field goal percentage is one number that combines 3-point and 2-point percentage, appropriately giving more weight to the 3s because (duh) they’re worth more points.

In terms of eFG%, 50 percent is roundly recognized as the benchmark of good shooting. Consider this:

  • Arizona’s record in games in which the Wildcats shoot over 50 in eFG%: 13-3. They’ve won 11 of the last 12 such games in a row.
  • In games which the Wildcats shoot 50 or less in eFG%: 3-7. They’ve lost the last seven such games in a row.

If you’re wondering, Arizona shot 70.0 eFG% in the first blowout win over WSU. Can we expect that to change this time around? I think so, for three reasons.

First, 70 eFG% is a ridiculously high number that is nearly impossible to duplicate under any circumstance. To get that high, you’ve got to get extraordinarily hot from long range — the kind of hot you only get once or twice a year. For perspective, the Cougs’ highest eFG% in conference this year is 67 (in the second game against USC); UCLA’s is 66; Stanford’s is 57.3.

Second, Arizona is missing one of its prime long-range shooters, Nic Wise. He’s missed the last four games, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Arizona is 1-3 with eFG% of 45.1, 52.9, 42.2 and 45.5. This is a team that has virtually no depth and the Wildcats miss his ability to stretch the defense.

Third, this Cougar defense has undergone a remarkable transformation that, frankly, I didn’t think was possible. We are doing a much better job of containing penetration while simultaneously doing a great job getting out on 3-point shooters.

In short, this is a WSU team that is much better than it was in the first matchup, and an Arizona team that is worse. While Jarryd Bayless and Chase Budinger probably will get theirs, these are two teams heading in opposite directions. It should translate into a big home win for the Cougs.

Oh, and FYI: I probably won’t be around to comment on the game as it happens. I’ll be on the west side again at that point and probably won’t be able to get to a computer. But I’m sure Jo-Jo will be here to feed your in-game analysis needs.

Posted in Game Threads | 3 Comments »