Jo-Jo wrote a great post below detailing some of the adjustments the Cougars made at halftime against Stanford, so I decided to look inside the numbers of each half to see what we else we can glean about that second half offensive performance.
Here are the four factors for the game, split by half. (Click on the link for each half to view the full box score. Special thanks to WSU SID Jessica Schmick for working them up for us!)
The first thing I notice -- and I'm sure it's the first thing Tony Bennett pointed out, lest the team get too carried away with what won them that game -- is that despite the offensive improvement on which we're about to continue to fixate, it really was the defense that allowed the Cougs to even have a shot at coming back in that game. That was Cougar lockdown defense at its finest. In fact, do you realize the Cardinal had just three offensive rebounds in the second half? And that two of them came on that one possession there at the end that we were sure was going to do us in? That ought to tell you how complete the defensive domination was.
That's important to remember, because despite the improved offense, the Cougars needed every bit of that defense -- right down the last DeAngelo Casto block -- to keep us from 0-3 and the pit of despair. And we'll likely continue to need that defense, even if what we saw on Saturday continues going forward.
Beyond the fact that defense truly is our identity, the 102.4 offensive efficiency in the second half is hardly world beating. That's just a tick above the national average of 100.2, and stil way, WAY off the pace of last season's 111.5. But it's no surprise we're all so excited about what we saw in the second half. After all, the offense has been so positively putrid against quality competition, it ends up looking amazing by comparison to what we've previously seen. It was kind of like dating this girl for two months and then having this girl suddenly show up at the bar and offer to take you home. You can't help but get a little ... um ... excited about that.
The good news is this: If we can somehow keep performing around that 102 level -- a great assumption, I know, considering it's just one half of basketball -- we stand a good chance of winning a good number of games the rest of the season.
How good is 102? While not elite, a 102 efficiency would have been good enough to win 10 out of 18 games the Cougars played in the Pac-10 last year. How good might it be this year? Well, the Cougs' defense is pretty much as good this year as it was last year, so that gives us a baseline for comparison. The offenses appear to be a tick down in the Pac-10 this year, with an average adjusted offensive efficiency of 110.6, compared to 113.4 last year, suggesting that 102 ought to be at least as effective at winning games this year as it was last year.
Now, again it's only one half of one game, but I think we all can agree that what we saw on Saturday is a lot closer to this team's true talent than what we'd seen up until that point.
So what caused Saturday's outburst? Well, Jo-Jo's observation that the team was looking for more opportunities to push the pace is more than just anecdotal: The pace was 32 in the second half, compared to 29 in the first half. That might not seem like much, but that first half pace is right on schedule for the team's season average of 58, while the second half pace would put the Cougs at 64 over the course of a game. That's a pretty darn significant change.
The funny thing is that I can't decide if I'm mad that it took Tony this long to make this shift, or whether I think it's genius. It's maddening to think that this could have happened earlier. But could it have happened earlier? Would we have been able to run a bit against previous opponents without it killing us defensively? I'm not sure, because I think our previous opponents that play at a faster pace are more talented than Stanford. There's actually a part of me that thinks Tony waited until the perfect time to take the chains off, what with Oregon State and Oregon -- two absolutely horrendous defensive teams -- waiting this weekend. Not to mention the readiness of the personnel to make such a radical shift viable.
Either way, the move worked. The team seemed to play with a freedom and looseness I didn't see in any of the televised games. And that looseness is key. These guys have been playing basketball so long, there are certain things that are just instinctual. (Contrast that with a guy like Thomas Abercrombie, a relative basketball newbie who never really fit in because he lacked those basketball instincts.) When thinking starts to get in the way of instincts, you get indecision and hesitation, resulting in turnovers and missed or blocked shots.
That's why I think Grady's observation two weeks ago that the lineup that seems to work best is one that features a mix of young and experienced players. Too many inexperienced players, and the disciplined wheels of the Bennett system completely fall off. Too many experienced players, and there just simply isn't enough athleticism on the floor to compete at a Pac-10 level. Mix it up, and you get the infusion of athleticism and talent with the steady hand to guide it in the right direction.
That's what we saw on Saturday. No matter how much Bennett tells his team to run, if Klay Thompson doesn't end up with the ball in his hands with the confidence to go, that play doesn't end up the way it does. And if that play doesn't end up the way it does ... well, who knows what would have happened.
Another thing I noticed Saturday were many, many more high screens and rolls with Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baynes -- a staple of the Cougar offense the last two years with Derrick Low/Kyle Weaver/Taylor Rochestie and Robbie Cowgill. They ran it so many times, I thought I was watching the Utah Jazz. Baynes lacked the agility and hands to run the set in previous years, but at his lighter weight, it actually worked on Saturday. Now, that was mostly because Stanford chose to defend Baynes on the roll, freeing up Rochestie to go off the way he did in the second half, so we'll see if Baynes really does have the footwork and hands when teams start to press Rochestie. But it worked for one game.
The awesome thing about all of this? There's still plenty of room for improvement -- mainly in terms of the team's shooting. They still only shot 4-for-15 from 3-point range in the game, 2-of-8 in the second half. They're better than that, and we all know it. At some point, Daven Harmeling is going to come around (if Bennett can find him minutes), and I'm starting to think that Grady's faith in Abe Lodwick is going to be well founded. As long as we can keep Nik Koprivica from shooting 3's (boy, Nov. 19 seems like a long time ago, no?), then we might really be on to something.