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.