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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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4 Responses to “Cougar basketball is back (I think)”

  1. johnnycougar said

    Good points Nuss. I’d offer an additional caveat to your “we already beat those 3 teams once” points. Simply, we’ve played them once before. Coach Bennett has perfect game film for every game from here to the NCAA’s, namely footage of us playing them. We were much more competetive against UCLA this go round, and sure the students would all love to think that part of that is the home court advantage, but I think home teams in conference are winning less than 60% this year. We played better against Oregon despite being on the road, and the USC games were about the same levels of beating (though we were comfortable earlier this time), and the OSU games were similar.

    I agree, it is a very real possibility that we go on a tear to end the conference season. I am personally of the opinion that Bennett is already one of the best two or three coaches in the league and he’ll find tendencies and opportunities in the game film that some of the other coaches won’t see. I think we’ll fix the problems that we had against Stanford and hopefully we can play Cal like we played Oregon this time (let the big guy shoot from outside but press hard on everyone else). Similarly, I think we’ll figure out ASU’s zone a little better and we’ll know how Harden attacks the basket. Since the loss to Zona was so bad I’d be tempted to chalk that up as a loss, but Nic Wise’s injury really hurts them.

    Go Cougs!

  2. Nuss said

    That’s an excellent point. I know we thought that way last year with the first half/second half adjustments that resulted in all those come-from-behind victories; it’s possible we’re seeing the same kind of effect now since we didn’t really have a lot of those losses in conference last year.

    And I think Nic Wise being hurt is a big, big deal. I saw a stat yesterday where Arizona is 2-5 in games missed by either Bayless or Wise.

  3. Hi– outsider here, just found your blog (nice work, BTW) and thought I’d comment on something.

    Namely, don’t sell your D short just because of the overall difficulty of the conference. The Cougs are in the middle of the Pac-10 pack defensively (somewhere between 4th and 6th) yet are 17th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency nationally! As good as the Pac-10 is overall, it blows every other conference out of the water as far as defensive quality.

    Conference-only stats say a lot about relative quality within the Pac-10, but I wouldn’t read TOO closely into them as far as tournament competition goes.

    On Arizona: have you seen their bench? Their #6 scorer has 3.2 points per game. Whenever any of their top 5 leaves for any reason (injury, fouls, rest, whatever) it’s literally like they have one less player on the offensive end…

  4. Nuss said

    Thanks for stopping by! As for the defense, that’s the reason I only used in conference stats, so that we could compare results against like teams. The Cougs’ overall defensive efficiency numbers are being skewed because of the kinds of weak teams they played in the nonconference schedule — particularly teams without athletic guards that can penetrate. We’re all looking at the tournament, and teams like what’s in the Pac-10 are exactly what the Cougs are going to face come March. And if we want to predict whether they’re going to make a deep run, it makes sense to conduct that analysis looking at how they fared against those kind of teams, not the Mississippi Valley State’s of the college basketball world. Their defense had been merely average when compared to other Pac-10 teams’ defenses against the same competition. That’s what was appalling.

    And, yes, Arizona is real thin. Lute really has kind of dropped off a little bit in recruiting — it’s not like he’s had a spate of early entry defections or something that’s left them thin. But if you want to talk thin, check this out: Four of USC’s five starters played ALL 40 MINUTES against UCLA. Yeesh. And I thought Bennett worked our guards too hard sometimes …

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