The way we've been talking about football lately, you'd think we were still in the middle of football season instead of preparing for the biggest basketball game of this season.
And make no mistake. Saturday is the biggest game of the year to date.
Is it a "must win"? I'm not even going to get into that again, because I think most of you know how I feel about that term at this point.* It is, however, an incredibly important game for this team because of what the Cougars have done to this point. As of about 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, WSU will either be 5-4 after half the conference slate with an inside track to the NCAA Tournament, or it 4-5 with its NCAA at-large aspirations in serious doubt.
A loss isn't a death knell, but it sure makes things a lot tougher -- you're talking about probably needing to win roughly seven of nine games (with road games at Arizona and UW) to put together a resume that will get the committee's attention. I think we all would like to have a little more wiggle room than that heading toward the Pac-10 tournament.
One reason I haven't been writing more about this team is because I'm finding them maddening to figure out. As I watch them, I find myself just getting incredibly frustrated. Why? Because this team isn't failing because of some magnified weakness; it's failing because what was supposed to be its strength -- the offense -- just hasn't been good enough.
Overall, the team's adjusted defensive efficiency (ranked 30th nationally) is outpacing its adjusted offensive efficiency (53rd). If Vegas offered odds on that sort of thing, you could have made some serious cash. At first glance, the former might be easy to dismiss as something built on the weak competition of the nonconference schedule. But that's not the case.
The Cougs have held six of their eight conference opponents under 1.0 points per possession which is excellent. But how excellent? Pomeroy's Game Plan page has a cool new feature where they show how your performance against a team ranks in that team's season. In eight Pac-10 games, we've held opponents to their 13th worst (UCLA), 6th worst (USC), 5th worst (Oregon), 5th worst (Oregon State), 17th worst (Cal), 5th worst (Stanford), 5th worst (Arizona State) and 3rd worst (Arizona) offensive performances of the year. Outside of two stinkers, this defense actually been quite good.
I'd even go so far as to say the defense would have been good enough to win this conference this year ... if the offense could have just pulled its own weight.
I feel so strange even typing that. The offense looked downright explosive early in the year, yet here we are having seen the Cougs struggle to sub-1.0 performances against half their opponents, some of which are mediocre defensively (Arizona, UCLA, Cal) -- this after being held under 1.0 just twice in the entire non-conference slate (by K-State and Butler). And if you think that was because of the quality of the opponent, think again: WSU put up the 5th highest offensive efficiency against Gonzaga and 2nd highest against Baylor.
So what's up with the offense?
The simple answer is that it just hasn't been shooting as well -- 54.5 eFG% overall, but just 51.4 in conference. That's a big difference. Some would say that's what happens when you rely so heavily on outside shooting, but that's not supposed to happen if you have enough shooters. Yet, it appears that when the shooting goes south for these guys, it's the whole team.
Well, except for Klay Thompson, who's been awesome in every Pac-10 game but two. I'm not sure whether to be encouraged or depressed by that thought.
I'm not a big X's and O's guy (although I'm trying to learn), so I don't know that I have any great solutions for how to get these guys to break out. We covered Faisal Aden some time ago, and although his shot percentage has dropped, it doesn't seem to have helped the team much. Maybe it's just as simple as shooting better, and regression to true talent will get these guys back on track. I honestly don't know.
What I do know, however, is that we won't stand a prayer of beating Washington without a stellar offensive performance. The Huskies have been held under 1.0 just three times all year and only once in their past 10 games (against Stanford).
While I think our defense can do a reasonable job on them, the offense simply must meet the challenge. Maybe Klay Thompson goes all Jimmer Fredette on them and carries us to victory. What's more likely, though, is that we need to get an unexpectedly good performance from someone else. Whether that's Aden, Reggie Moore or DeAngelo Casto, we're probably going to need 20-plus points from someone else -- or a Baylor-like performance where five guys are in double digits.
It's going to take a big day from the offense -- and it's going to need to be the start of consistent offensive performances the rest of the way.