We all had the sneaking suspicion that last night's game at the crucible of K2 would tell us a lot about the Cougs after they more or less stomped lesser competition for the first six games in what looks like a masterful bit of scheduling -- three cupcakes at home, a game against a lesser opponent on the road, a game against a lesser opponent on a neutral site, and finally a game against a little bit better (but still overmatched) opponent on a neutral floor.
Well, the game delivered as promised. We learned a heck of a lot last night -- most of it positive. Buckle up, because I've got a lot of stuff floating around in my head.
Gonzaga is exactly who we thought they were. I'm not going to talk a whole lot about the Bulldogs, because you know where you can go to get that stuff. But it's important to note because all of the rest of the analysis of the Cougs has to be put in the context of Gonzaga being a pretty darn good team -- especially defensively.
It might have taken 32 minutes for them to show up, but there is no question this is the best defensive Gonzaga team I've seen since I've paid attention to them. They've had good statistical defensive teams in the past, but that was built mostly on overwhelming physically overmatched WCC opponents. When it came time to play the big boys, they got torched. Those teams just didn't pass the eye test. This team passes the eye test.
However, if I was a Gonzaga fan, I might be just a tad bit worried about my offense. Without a reliable trigger man at the point -- a signature of Bulldog basketball over the years -- they look like they might struggle from time to time on that end.
Now, on to the Cougs.This Cougar team is clearly -- CLEARLY -- better off with Ken Bone as coach than Tony Bennett right now. When the Cougars' offense is rolling, as it was in the first half last night, it's truly a sight to behold. The Cougs only finished with a 95.7 offensive rating, but you can largely chalk that up to scoring just six points over the final nine-plus minutes (minus the meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer. Quick math tells us that the team's efficiency probably was around 110 up until that point. That's awesome against a team like Gonzaga.
But can you imagine what this team would look like if Bennett were still coach? Walking it up the floor, awkward half court sets, everyone hesitating to shoot lest you find yourself right back on the bench? Offensive efficiencies hovering around 100 every night? Yeah, me neither.
With Bennett, we'd be talking about these guys being good in two years when they're seniors and juniors -- you know, when they've finally got Bennett ball "down." With Bone, we've got a team that's explosive on offense and is getting better every game on defense. Additionally, I think it's already becoming obvious that Bone is Bennett's superior as a game coach. At some point this year, we'll be talking about how the Cougs got a win thanks to some shrewd game plan or in-game decision from Bone. It almost happened last night.
When the year started, I was hesitant about Bone Ball -- felt like we were just too loose and undisciplined on both ends of the floor -- but I get more excited with each passing game. They're improving rapidly, and he's getting these guys to play to their strengths. I'm not going to make any bold pronounciations about whether he'll be better long term than Bennett would have been. But right now? I'm soooooo happy he's our coach.
The defense still needs some work. The Cougs are still having difficulty finding shooters in the open floor. In general, they did a better job fighting through screens -- although, as noted by some of our commenters, their technique could be better at times -- but they're still just too slow closing out on shooters. There's no reason why an average 3-point shooter should be able to get as many open looks as Matt Bouldin got. But they are making strides. Holding Gonzaga to around a 102 efficiency is nothing to sneeze at. These guys are getting incrementally better.
This team is just one legitimate big man away from being very, very good. That would be great news, if this team had a legitimate big man hanging out somewhere, either on the bench or waiting in the wings for next year. But since we don't, we're just going to have to be content with being pretty good this year, and pray to whatever god you believe in that Ken Bone can dig up a big man for next year's team.
Being loaded at guard can only take you so far if you don't have a frontcourt to do some of the dirty work. Yeah, we were able to run out to a big lead last night while generating turnovers and picking up a pile of loose-ball rebounds thanks to our guards crashing down on the boards. But when the game slowed down and Gonzaga started to get the ball to Elias Harris -- who is going to be an absolute beast when he learns to play hard for 40 minutes -- and decided to really crash the boards, the Cougs were pretty much powerless to stop them. It's going to be a point of frustration all year, and we've got to hope that our guards can make the difference more nights than not.
Honestly, the more I think about it, the more irritated I get that we don't have another quality big man on the roster. For all of the great things Tony Bennett did for this program, his infatuation with recruiting guards has left us in this untenable position.
Here is a list of frontcourt Bennett landed since 2007 (height/weight when recruited): Charlie Enquist (6-10/190), Fabian Boeke (6-10/225), James Watson (6-7/205), DeAngelo Casto (6-8/240), Brock Motum (6-9/215). He signed just five frontcourt players in three years, only one of which could be considered a legitimate Pac-10 big man. Sure, people thought Boeke would be around, but I think the fact that Casto more or less fell into his lap during the late signing period after qualifying at the 11th hour in 2008 more than makes up for that.
I know big men don't grow on trees, and I'm thankful for some of the guards he brought in. But it really was an inexcusable fail in recruiting that Bone and his players are paying for this year.
On a related note, Bone's got a heck of a dilemma on his hands at the 4 spot. Abe Lodwick has started every game at the 4; Nik Koprivica has been his primary relief. When Koprivica's in the game, the offense is better, as is the man-to-man defense. When Lodwick's in the game, the rebounding is better -- he's putting up better rebounding numbers in these seven games than Caleb Forrest did all of last year.
Last night, Bone elected to roll with Koprivica virtually the entire second half, probably the only decision all night I'm not sure I agreed with. We were getting killed so badly on the boards, and it sure seemed like we could have used Abe in there. Yet, Bone elected to stay with Koprivica. He seems to not want to play these two guys on the floor at the same time, so it's going to be interesting to see how he manages these two guys.
This team will be better off for having lost that game than they would have been had they won with Klay bailing them out again. Of course, nobody ever wants to lose. But sometimes you learn things in losing that you don't learn in winning. Both Reggie Moore and Marcus Capers said the Cougs didn't finish the game strong after racing out to the big lead. That's the second time it's happened this year. Against EWU, they were bailed out by Klay Thompson. No such luck last night, with Klay being locked down by the Zags' defense.
If this game ends up teaching them how to keep their foot on the gas for 40 minutes, then it will have been worth it. How different might last night have been if they had kept up the intensity enough to take care of the basketball down the stretch and continue to aggressively drive into the lane? They would have won even without Klay, and that's what this team needs to learn.
Besides, if the Cougs are in the mix for a Tournament berth in March, this will hardly be considered a bad loss.
Klay Thompson is still very much a work in progress. We wondered what would happen when Klay finally played an opponent with the length and athleticism to bother his shot. We found out -- 6-of-21 shooting for an ineffective 15 points. Steven Gray was physical with him all night long, working to deny Klay the ball as much as possible. When he did get the ball, he could hardly get off a shot.
It was painfully clear last night that if this team wants Klay to continue to perform at a high level when they're playing a quality opponent, he's going to have to work harder to get open -- seriously, he should get some videos of Stephen Curry and study them -- and his teammates are going to have to be more in tune with getting him the ball in spots where he can score. Not that this is all bad; if there's one thing Klay has shown over the last two years, it's that he learns from game to game -- not month to month or year to year. Again, there's no doubt in my mind the Cougs will grow from this.
Truthfully, Gray is probably going to be one of the better defenders Klay sees this year. But if you were worried about Klay leaving at the end of the year, last night should make you feel a little better. If I'm an NBA GM watching last night's game, I'm thinking Klay's still got some work to do.
Lastly, Greg Heister and Craig Ehlo suck. More specifically, they suck at being objective. It's not that they necessarily call a bad game, it's just that they try to represent this total farce of a facade of objectivity. I mean, on one possession, it looked like there was a foul down low on a Gonzaga player and Heister said, "Was that a foul? It better be a foul!" He tried backtracking later, but why pretend? If FSN is going to go so cheap that they can't send one of their better (a relative term, I know) announcing teams to Spokane, then just be a homer. It's fine with me. But quit pretending.
Especially Ehlo. For goodness sakes, Craig -- we know you're a Zag now. We know that the only WSU player you really know anything about is Casto because he grew up in Spokane. We get it. You are a Spokane guy who's closer to the Gonzaga program. Fine. Just drop the pretenses, and say you don't follow the Cougs all that closely, OK? Because it's really obvious