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Archive for February 18th, 2008

Cougar basketball is back (I think)

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 18, 2008

I figure I’ll forgo the rehashing of the Oregon game, since I’m a little belated in my game thoughts thanks to the long weekend.

We know it was a good win, given that wins in the Pac-10 are so hard to come by and that wins at Mac Court have been particularly so for this group of seniors. So good for them on not only picking up a big road win, but getting a win that secures the second season sweep in as many weekends of a team that is going to the NCAA tournament. That’s the kind of stuff that does wonders for your seeding.

The other kind of thing that does wonders for your seeding is finishing the year hot, and there’s a very real chance that might happen.

About two weeks ago, I devoted about 1,400 words of space here to tell you, in a very round about way, what I could have just said in three words: Our defense stunk. But after the events of the last two weeks, I’m pretty certain I have to at least somewhat rethink my conclusion. The Cougs have now gone 3-1 in their last four, including decisive wins over USC at home and Oregon on the road, and the hallmark in all of those victories has been what was missing for much of the Pac-10 conference season — defense.

This still isn’t the defense of last season, but the improvement in the past four games is undeniable. Consider this: After holding our first two conference opponents (Washington and USC) to under a 100 offensive efficiency rating (the benchmark of simply average defense), we allowed seven of our next eight opponents to exceed that mark. (Only the Beavers, in all of their awesomeness, kept that from being eight straight.) That’s just three games out of our first 10 that we were able to play better than average defense.

But after holding Oregon to a 96.2 mark on Saturday, we now have held our opponents under 100 for three consecutive games. Before playing the Cougs, USC had topped the 100 mark in eight consecutive games; Oregon had done it in 11 of its previous 13 games. Our overall defensive efficiency mark in conference games has dropped to 103, good now for fifth in the league. It’s not exactly lighting the world on fire, but it’s an excellent start.

What’s been the major difference? We seem to be doing a much better job preventing dribble penetration than we were through the first half of the conference season. I’m not totally sure why that is, but to my untrained eyes, it looks as though we are doing much less switching than we were earlier in the season. Each guy is responsible for keeping his man in front of him, and for the most part it’s working.

Additionally, we are defending the 3 much better than we were early in the season, and I think that also has a lot to do with the lack of switching and trapping. When a team switches and traps, the defense is often left to scramble to get to the open shooter. The Cougs, frankly, just aren’t that long and quick, and good shooting teams will kill that kind of confusion, a la the first meeting with Arizona. It’s a lot easier to get a hand up in a shooter’s face if you’re not running around trying to figure out which guy you’re supposed to try and rotate to. (Update: Vince Grippi gives some nice insight into what went on schematically here. I read it after I wrote this post.)

Now, the reason I haven’t fully bought in to this defensive turnaround yet is that USC and Oregon are teams that we contained reasonably well the first time around, and as Jo-Jo so eloquently pointed out on Saturday, anytime you beat OSU it has as much to do with how bad the Beavers suck as it does with how well you play. But as I said, it’s not so much that we held them down, it’s how we held those teams down — and that gives me great encouragement heading forward.

Now, I’m going to reserve judgment until after this weekend. If we can keep James Harden and Jarryd Bayless out of the paint, and get out on Arizona’s 3-point shooters — a job made easier thanks to the absence of Nic Wise — then I’ll start to believe this thing has really turned around and that a long tournament run might be in our future.

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