I have a lot of conflicting feelings about what I witnessed in Pullman on Saturday, mostly because I think the game represented two very separate and distinct experiences as a Cougar basketball fan.
The first experience, and obviously the one I will remember most fondly once this season is in the rear view mirror, is of being able to give these five seniors the hero’s send off they all so richly deserved. As I contributed my voice to the cheers that descended from the rafters, I thought of all the joy these guys have brought us — not only in the successes of the past two years, but in the lumps they took the first two years as we learned to love Bennett ball.
In that respect, the game did not even come close to disappointing. As Ryan Appleby’s last chance to send the game to a third overtime clanged off the rim (do you realize that guy never beat WSU in his three years in Seattle?), Aron Baynes practically stomped a hole in the Friel Court floor, the seniors smiled weary, exhausted smiles, and I high-fived anyone within reach of me. (Except for the guy to my left who spent the entire game trying to impress his girlfriend with his “knowledge” of basketball and superfluous string of profanties. I didn’t high-five him. But that’s another story.) Watching the players gather at midcourt for one final time at Beasley and then thank the fans back for their support — specifically the Zzu Cru, which stepped up huge with spring break already underway — just made me feel so proud to be a Coug.
But during the game itself, I had a heck of a hard time separating that experience from the one that kept staring me in the face — the one that let the Huskies hang around far longer than they should have, the one that scares me to death going forward from here, now that the postseason is upon us.
For the fourth time in five games, the offense performed well below its season standard. What’s weird about it is there’s not really one thing you can point to as a neat and tidy explanation for the issues that have caused the funk. In two games, it was simply poor shooting (Arizona State, Arizona); in another, an inability to get anywhere near the rim or to the free throw line for the most critical stretch of the game (Stanford); against Washington, it was turnovers and poor free throw shooting.
The problem with having no tidy explanation, of course, is that there are no tidy fixes, either. So we’re left to wonder: Is there something bigger going on here? At various times throughout the year I’ve openly wondered if this team is tiring, given not only the heavy minutes most of our starters log but the nature of those grinding minutes thanks to the Cougar basketball style. And I’ll openly wonder it again.
I think this team is a lot more worn down and banged up than anyone is letting on. Daven Harmeling was completely ineffective again, getting absolutely abused on defense, thanks to his lack of lateral movement, to the tune of three fouls in four minutes. Kyle Weaver clearly is playing hurt, something that was exacerbated when he landed hard in the game. I don’t know if they showed it on TV, but many times Weaver was the last to leave the huddle, sitting on his chair until the very last second he had to get up and limp his way into position. He is battling, but he made some uncharacteristically boneheaded decisions with the ball in that game, which makes you wonder if his pain is getting into his head.
Then, there is the not-so-obvious candidate. For about 38 minutes, Aron Baynes was having a flashback to his freshman year, and someone close to the program speculated after the game that he might be playing through some back issues. It would make sense, because he just didn’t look like the same guy out there for most of that game, allowing a lot of rebounds that he normally just does not give up. It also might help explain his sudden ineptitude from the free throw line — when you’re dealing with that big of a body, it doesn’t take much to throw off a shot.
For the Cougs, Weaver, Baynes and Harmeling are three important cogs that serve distinctly unique and important roles on this team. For all that Ptowncoug wants to rail against Baynes being a focal point of the offense, you saw how much the game changed once Baynes started being aggressive around the basket, how the threat of him scoring opened things up for everyone else. You’ve also seen at times this year how a healthy Harmeling completely changes the way teams defend us. And it doesn’t even need to be stated what Weaver means to our offense.
Additionally, I think it affected us on the defensive end, too. We’ve been doing such an outstanding job of rebounding as of late that we’ve started to take it for granted. We did a spectacular job of keeping the Huskies from making shots on Saturday, but we got absolutely destroyed on the glass. A lot of the credit has to be given to Washington, which was relentless in its pursuit of the ball. But how does Weaver play 44 minutes and grab only three rebounds? Or Baynes play 38 and grab only eight? How do we get outrebounded by nearly 20? We know what the point of emphasis will be heading towards Thursday, especially after Oregon did a similar thing to Arizona on the glass in its win on Saturday.
Now, I know everyone is banged up this time of year. But one of the interesting things about the way this team is constructed — besides lacking a lot of depth — is that it’s not a team full of interchangeable parts. When one of these guys isn’t able to do his job, it’s to the detriment of the whole. And this whole needs to be functioning at its tip-top level very soon. Let’s hope some of this stuff heals up a bit between now and Thursday.
That said, nothing can take away from the fun I had this weekend, and the memories I made. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to get to November’s Apple Cup with the Huskies finally breaking the streak. Thank goodness I don’t have to.
Seven in a row, baby!