Here we are, eight games into the season, and already some strong opinions about Cougar basketball are starting to be formulated. Many of us here in Pullman have seen the Cougars multiple times, live and in person. Those of you in the greater Coug Nation have also had a chance to watch Wazzu now, anywhere from one to four times depending on what channels you receive.
Since I write for a blog about the Cougars, I try to stay as in touch as possible with not only the team but with what other fans are feeling. The internet is a great place for this; everywhere from our humble blog to the Cougfan forums to the comments on the mainstream sports media sites. The other source of fan chatter is actual human contact (ridiculous in this age, I know). That's easy to follow up on too, since I spend every game in the heart of the ZZU CRU, talk to my friends about the team, talk to occasional total strangers about the team, and so on.
One thing I'm always proud of is how knowledgeable Cougar fans are about their team, and how loyal they are to WSU. There is very little bashing of the players, or the coaches. The level of negativity is minuscule compared to other major programs. Tony was worried about how the fans might react to this year's team, a "reloading" project that happens to follow up two successful seasons. The answer is clear: we understand the work involved, we remember what got us here in the first place, and most of all we value having Tony Bennett as a head coach.
Still, there are a couple of myths floating around Cougar Nation that I feel need to be addressed. While well intentioned, I think even the best fans can draw conclusions that are false, or based on having only seen this year's team once or twice. Tonight, I will address them head on.
Myth #1: Taylor Rochestie needs to step up and shoot more
Perhaps last night will help clear this up in some people's minds. Rochestie played the full 40 minutes of game time, and made 3 of a team-high 11 attempts from the floor. His best damage was actually done at the free throw line, where the always reliable lefty went 4 for 4. The rest of the Cougs shot 8 of 15, for comparison's sake.
The fact of the matter is that Taylor plays his best when he distributes the ball first, and lets the offense come to him. Compare his first four games to his last four games:
MVSU (W) - 1 for 3, 6 assists
FDU (W) - 2 for 6, 7 assists
Sac St (W) - 6 for 10, 10 assists
Canisius (W) - 7 for 12, 3 assists
Totals: 16 for 31, 26 assists
Miss St. (W) - 2 for 14, 5 assists
Pitt (L) - 2 for 9, 4 assists
ID State (W) - 3 for 7, 5 assists
Baylor (L) - 3 for 14, 4 assists
Totals: 10 for 44, 18 assists
Ok, one obvious point to start. The last four teams were much better in terms of talent than the previous four. But the one thing that is clear is that in the last four, he's shot the ball 13 more times, and has made six less shots and dished eight less assists. While Taylor can't control the defense he's playing against, he can control how much he shoots and how much he passes.
And shot selection is the key for Taylor. In the Cougars' eight regular season losses last season, Rochestie averaged 8.5 attempts per game. In their 24 wins, Rochestie averaged 7.0 attempts per game.Taylor doesn't have to back off shooting much to be effective - he still has a great three point stroke and does have the ability to drive the lane on occasion. But in that 1.5 attempts/game difference are a bad shot or two that he can afford to cut out of his game. He doesn't need to be more aggressive, he needs to be less. How often last year did we see Taylor nail a wide open three out of an opponent's defensive breakdown? Those are the shots he needs to wait for.
RIght now, Taylor's season eFG% is the worst of the Cougar starters at 42%. His assist percentage, on the other hand, is a wonderful 37.2%. He has over 40% of the team's total assists. He is second in the conference in total assists despite playing on one of the slowest tempo teams in the nation. Despite being more aggressive in the past several games, his eFG% is nearly 15 points lower than it was last season.
So the question is this: would you rather have Taylor pass, or shoot? I know which one I'd choose.
Myth #2: Nikola Koprivica is ineffective and shoud not be a starter
This one is really irking me right now. Part of it is, and let's get this out of the way early, Americans have a slight bias against international players. After all, how frustrating was it to watch Argentina flop their way to a Gold medal in 2004? Or watch Lithuania launch threes over a U.S. team that should have run them off the floor on talent alone? I still hate Sarunas Jasikevicius. Essentially, it's hard for us to get around a style of play where athleticism is devalued in favor of team play, and where a little acting can lead to a foul shot or two.
But hating the international game is ridiculous for Cougar fans in that it emulates Bennett ball in a variety of aspects: it requires good shooting, great defense, a slower tempo (in some cases), and a five-is-greater-than-one type mentality.
Nikola Koprivica is well suited for Tony's system for all of those reasons. He's a good defender, so much so that Tony trusted Nik to guard Jerryd Bayless in relief of Kyle Weaver last year (when his knee wasn't even 100%). He's a good perimeter shooter once again, as evidenced by his torrid start to this season. He is a great lineup fit as a combo guard-forward, providing height at the 3 position without sacrificing much in quickness or ballhandling. Most importantly: he can get to the free throw line. His FT rate is the highest of any starter not named Aron Baynes, and he had a 45.7 FT rate last year which is pretty good for a guard. The aforementioned Bayless had a 58.9 FT rate last season (and he was one of the best).
After getting beat soundly by both Pitt and Baylor at the foul line, WSU desperately needs a player that can drive and kick, or drive and draw a foul. Nikola can do both. His only issue is making free throws (7 for 12 on the year); but that should improve as his number of trips to the line goes up. His other issue is a somewhat human assist to turnover ration (1.5:1), but he's not supposed to distribute - he's supposed to shoot, defend, and get to the line. And still, as a starting guard he's never had more than three turnovers in a game this season. Plus he has 15% of the team's steals. Food for thought for those who think Nik is careless with the ball.
If anything, Koprivica needs to be more aggressive shooting the ball. I'm sure after I write this he'll go into a slump like Abe Lodwick (the first shooter I jinxed this year), but right now he's shooting 46.2% from the floor, 40.9% from three, and has the highest eFG% of any Cougar guard (57.6%). He's already made five more three-pointers than he did all of last season. There's no reason to believe that, even with some regression to the mean, Nikola can't keep his numbers up close to those. But he's never shot more than seven times in a game this year. In the four games where he's attempted four shots or less he still scored five points or more.
This is the opposite of Rochestie - a guard who should be a little more agressive, instead of a little less. Furthermore, he is fourth on the team in rebounding with 4.1 per game and second in assists (2 per game). This in addition to solid defensive play - between him, Klay and Taylor we are pretty well set for whatever talented guards the other guys throw at us.
Finally, if you need one more reason to support Koprivica, he's from Sport Grammer School. I'm not sure what exactly goes on there, but if it involves sports and grammer [sic], I want to be a part of it. Two great concepts brought together at last. There's also the facebook group "Nikola Koprivica: Ballin'". And yes, Nik is a member.
Don't take it from me. Take it from someone who knows a lot more about basketball than you or I. Tony Bennett has never deviated this season from a starting lineup of Rochestie, Thompson, Koprivica, Harmeling and Baynes. Listen to Coach Bennett - Nik deserves to start.