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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.

The defense was absolutely unbelievable. Ryan Anderson — who appears to be tiring as he continues to try and carry the Bears to the tournament — was limited to only 13 points behind what now has to be the blueprint for containing him. The Cougs were content (for the most part) to let him have his post touches, but were absolutely determined not to let him get hot from outside. Every time he touched the ball on the perimeter, there was a defender within two feet of him. He only got off five 3-pointers, virtually all of them contested.

In fact, that was the overall blueprint against the Bears, who shot just 2-of-18 from beyond the arc. That wasn’t just a cold shooting night; that was the Cougs saying, “If you’re determined to shoot it from out there, you’re going to take as many of them under duress as we can possibly muster.” The Bears forced shot after shot from outside and eventually buried themselves because of it.

As I said last night, anytime you hold a team scoreless for five-plus minutes — especially when it’s the last five minutes of a game, and especially when the team has as talented a go to scorer as Anderson — you’ve put together a special defensive performance.

The offense was equally impressive, and not just because we came out of the locker room on fire, making 10 of our first 12 shots. This was a clinic from start to finish on how to run the Bennett motion offense. The guards did a great job moving without the basketball, and everyone did an exceptional job recognizing where the weakness in the Cal defense was and exploiting it, whether it was slashing to the basket, feeding Aron Baynes in the post, or hitting spot-up shooter for a 3.

One play in particular represents this better than any other. The Bears briefly went to a zone early in the second half to try and disrupt the rhythm of the Cougs, who were making nearly every shot and starting to run away with the game. Kyle Weaver promptly planted himself in the high post, where Taylor Rochestie quickly got him the ball. Weaver took two hard dribbles into the gap in the zone, drawing the defense as Rochestie simply drifted to the baseline. When three defenders predictably collapsed, Weaver calmly passed to Rochestie, who hit a 3. It was textbook Beating the Zone 101. The zone did not reappear.

A major concern offensively heading into last night’s game is how the team would respond to the absence of Daven Harmeling, who missed the game with a sprained ankle. And I’m not really sure how I feel about what I saw.

On the one hand, I’m happy we were able to “overcome” his absence. On the other hand, I wonder if “overcome” is the right word, given how fluid the offense looked. While Harmeling’s marksmanship is undoubtedly a huge asset, he doesn’t exactly facilitate the offense, either. He doesn’t screen much (except to pick and pop), can’t handle the ball, is merely an adequate passer, and he doesn’t post up. More often that not, when the ball goes through his hands, it ends with a made or missed 3-pointer. His defense has been pretty good, but you’ll always get better defense out of Caleb Forrest, and what I saw last night was an offense that looked awful smooth with two dedicated screeners on the floor at all times.

Now, I’m not trying to bag on Harmeling — he is who he is, and he’s improved who he is each of the last two years. And one game is waaaaay too small of a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, especially against a team as defensively porous as Cal. Teams often ride on adrenaline and a kind of hyper-focus when they’re missing a key cog for one or two games, so maybe there’s nothing to be read into it. But, one has to wonder if Tony Bennett saw what I saw. I guess we’ll find out when Harmeling presumably returns on Saturday, although I’m not sure how good of an indicator that will be, either, because of Stanford’s unique lineup.

Bottom line, though? This was a huge performance at precisely the right time.

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6 Responses to “Best performance of the season so far”

  1. Ptowncoug said

    Nuss:
    I think you need to re-watch the game. The difference was that Baynes was not the focal pt of the offense. They rarely double teamed him when they touched the ball and a good amount of touches on offense was off dribble penetration.
    This is what I think our teams need to be and that I was an advocate for Baynes being off the floor. It has been in the past when he is on the floor we become stagnant as we try to get him the ball. The focus should be on our big 3 guards and that is essentially where it was at last night.
    However, I don’t really have a huge issue with Baynes on the floor (I do recognize his rebounding prowess and size) but quit making him the focal pt of the offense or at least making sure he gets touches down low on every trip. He can certainly go without.
    Honestly, I do not think we could have played any better offensively. Our guys finally played like veterans. They were confident in pulling up and taking a shot at the appropriate time and not necessarily when forced because we held the ball too long. Just awesome.

  2. Nuss said

    I hate to break it to you, but Baynes has not been the focal point of our offense for a long time. He hasn’t hit double digits in shot attempts since the first Cal game a month ago, and has only averaged 4.8 field goal attempts since then — and I’d venture to say that a good number of those have been dunks. For comparison, Robbie Cowgill has averaged 5.4 field goal attempts over that same stretch.

    But I do remember thinking to myself last night that there were some awful long stretches where not only didn’t Baynes touch the ball, but they didn’t even try to get him the ball. That’s a pretty far departure from the the middle of the season when it seemed like virtually every possession — at least early in the game — was designed to look for him first. Maybe that’s part of the reason why our offense really seems to be taking off. It’s creating a lot more space for the guards, especially Rochestie, whom Bennett seems to have more or less turned completely loose out there.

  3. Ptowncoug said

    The focal part of the offense doesn’t mean he has to shoot it. It was that he had to (or at least try) get him the ball every possession. We are better offense when we allow our guards to do things rather than time them up with entry passes.
    We can both agree that he is not yet a very adept passer and really does not have a great sense where is at the court on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe next things will be different and they may have to be with lack of returning experience at the guard. But this game evidenced experienced guards simply taking over the game.

  4. Nuss said

    But this game evidenced experienced guards simply taking over the game.

    I’ll agree with that, but we’ll just have to disagree that Baynes was the issue. It’s easier for guards to flow and move when you replace a mediocre screener who does it mostly to get his own shot and stands around the 3-point line taking up space with a guy whose job it is to set a good screen and roll to the bucket.

    Again, it’s not Harm’s fault — he is who he is.

  5. Ptowncoug said

    No Nuss sweat my Christian brother. I agree that Harm’s has his faults, my biggest is that he doesn’t dribble very well. I think having Nic and Forrest helped, but still think that less reliance on getting ball to Baynes is the factor.
    Does this count as the last word so I win?

  6. Nuss said

    Sure.

    Except that now I’ve had the last word. 😉

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