Hello, worst case scenario.
Unless you're completely apathetic towards Cougar athletics (and evidenced by the fact you're reading this blog, you're not), you may have noticed we were swept in the Bay Area this weekend.
Swept away by the long ball. Nuss mentioned this in the post-game, but we gave up 17 for 25 three-point shooting this weekend. That's 68 percent! It's a miracle we even had a shot at winning one of the games.
And there's the obvious lucklessness of having one of our best offensive nights at California yesterday, only to get kicked in the knees by giving up a 61.7% eFG on defense. We also got beat pretty bad on the offensive boards, giving up an OR% of 28 compared to 10.5% for the good guys (us).
But wait - we beat Cal shooting-wise, by posting a 64.6% eFG of our own. That's not bad.
So how can I still be upset at our offense?
In one sentence fragment: not getting to the line.
Pathetic doesn't even begin to describe this team's effort at getting towards the charity stripe. I know, it's a little ridiculous to second-guess 18-22 year-olds, but yesterday was just crazy. We had one free throw attempt. In forty minutes of basketball. Good thing we hit that one, or else we would've lost by nine.
Which begs the question: why is this team so petrified of contact? Aron Baynes is about the only Cougar that consistently draws a foul or two. But he's perfected his jump hook to the point where, if we have position, he's almost better off doing that than drawing a whistle. And - something you may have noticed - the refs called yesterday's game so loose that Baynes never really had his usual chance at the line. (Side note: I thought a Dave Libbey crew was supposed to favor the road team - what happened, buddy?)
The officiating has something to do with the foul disparity. Capers, in my opinion, should have gone to the line on his charge (two points negated there). Koprivica got the wrong end of a "reach-in" that looked a heck of a lot more like a Cal turnover to me (which led to Cal points). And then there was the Caleb Forrest foul of a guy under the basket who had no intention to shoot - that was called a shooting foul. Two points.
Of course, we can whine all day about the officiating and nothing good will come of it. Let's face it, good teams overcome the occasional human error of the zebra-clad guys. There really is no excuse - ever - for posting a FT rate of 2.1%. Cal may not have made their living at the line, but they ended up with a 34% FT rate. And honestly that number is skewed by the FTs Cal made at the end of the game. Even in a loosely-called game, you have to once in a while force the refs to blow the whistle.
To a certain extent, our team deserves some slack for this game. After all, we really lit it up. Four players in double-figures, shooting percentages above 50% for all five starters. But the fact of the matter is we're not going to shoot like that every night. We're not going to shoot like that on most nights. In fact the starters pretty much have to shoot like that, because we sure aren't getting anything out of the bench at the moment (last night: 1 for 6, 2 points). If this team is going to be competitive in games where they aren't shooting the lights out (which, again, is going to be most of them), they have to start making it to the line. I can't say it enough.
Where's the D?
The most disturbing element of this road trip, obviously, was the lack of defense. Especially on the perimeter. Against Stanford it appeared, at least listening to Bud Nameck's call on the radio, that we had quite a few breakdowns when it came to defending the three. Against Cal? Well, we had a few late recoveries and missteps, but Cal just shoots like crazy from behind the arc. They are the best team in the NCAA doing it., percentage-wise. And it's darn near impossible to defend Jerome Randle, who mirrors Oregon G Tajuan Porter in his ability to shoot the ball quickly and accurately. But unlike Porter, Randle has the help of Christopher and Robertson from distance when Cal needs it. You really can't stop all three.
Just like we won't shoot the ball like we did Saturday, we won't continue to have the defensive problems we had in the Bay Area. One has to wonder if we could just piece the two together: a good shooting night complemented by our usual defensive effort.
Do you know what the real problem with our defense is? An inability to force turnovers. Last year, the Cougars forced a defensive turnover rate of 21.3. That's not great, but not bad either, and it ranks at about the middle of the road in College basketball at 149th nationally. This year our defensive turnover rate is 17.5. Doesn't seem like much, but it drops our national ranking all the way to 324th! There's only 344 teams in Division 1 basketball.
And guess which two players did most of the damage? You got it - Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Both were nationally ranked in steal percentage by kenpom.com.
Sadly, we're not the defensive team we used to be. We're still pretty good - 17th in the nation in defensive efficiency - but USC leads the conference at #11. The Pac-10 has three more teams in the top 31 defensively - Washington (31), UCLA (26) and Arizona State (29). Who knew the Huskies played defense?
The combination of good defensive opponents and defensive breakdowns of our own have led to a long season so far. The question is, can we right the ship in our final seven games?
The Koprivica Engima
Who is Nikola Koprivica, anyway? Is he a deserving starter and a behind-the-scenes key to our offense and defense? Or is he a bench player that belongs there for his inability to score and create offense? Is he a jump shooter, or is he a slasher to the basket? Is he good enough on defense to make up for his lack of shooting? Is he helping us, or hurting us?
Even though we're 23 games into the season, I don't know the answer to these questions. I know for a fact, however, that Koprivica is a fan anti-favorite, a guy some fans would like to stash on the bench in favor of DeAngelo Casto or Marcus Capers. That sort of endears him to me - I like the underdog; I'm one of the Mariner fans that knows darn well that Adrian Beltre is a key contributor and Willie Bloomquist is not [side note: probably not the best comparison, but the point is Bloomquist was a "fan favorite" while Beltre was getting jeers for his lack of offense]. Furthermore, Tony has to have some really good reason for starting Koprivica as often as he does. I feel a lot of the hate towards Nik is blown out of proportion.
And Nik does do some things pretty well. Last night he dished out 5 assists to 0 turnovers, and displayed good shot selection of his own. Of course he didn't shoot very often, but he made two of the three attempts he took, including a nice cut to the basket. He could be one of the guys we can utilize to get to the foul line. He's an improved 3-point shooter this year.
But the fact of the matter remains that the offensively-minded Koprivica from the first few games of this season has completely disappeared. Take Nik's point totals from the first six games of the campaign - 8, 10, 7, 3, 7 and 5 respectively. His last six games? Try 4, 4, 0, 2, 0 and 0. After starting the year 4 of 7 from three-point range, he hasn't made a three since January 15th. He is shooting 2 for 14 from distance in Pac-10 play. Regresssion to the mean? Certainly. Does it mean he's a horrific shooter? I hope not.
Can Koprivica do things for us on offense? Yes. Will he? He hasn't yet, and we don't know what the future holds. For the time being his defense is the #1 reason you see him out on the court.
Regardless, you have to root for Koprivica to play well. Why? Well, because he's on your favorite team, for starters. But, more importantly, he's our only senior next year, and one of only two upperclassmen (Fabian Boeke will be a junior). We may not need Nik's offense now, but we'll need it someday.
Looking ahead to Oregon and Oregon State
Anyone else concerned about the upcoming homestand with Oregon? Maybe I'm a worrier by nature, but I don't think there is any way Oregon goes 0-for this season in Pac-10 play. That means they have to beat someone better than them. And that someone could be a WSU team that's 1-4 at home in conference play.
Meanwhile, Oregon State comes to town on Saturday with the exact same number of conference wins that we have at the moment. That says more about the job Craig Robinson has done that it says about our team's struggles. Nevertheless, it looks like we'll be facing another gritty, defensive battle played somewhere in the 40s and 50s. We're gonna need offense for that one. And when all else fails, put OSU on the line. They are simply atrocious there at 62.4%. We just have to be careful about Roeland Schaftenaar - he could light us up in a similar fashion to what former international OSU standout Sasha Cuic used to do.