So, we're all disappointed in the wake of 71-69. We've all had time to get angry, then accept, and then cope with the loss. I had a rather interesting conversation with my friend Billy in the wake of this game and it has inspired me to try and find the silver lining in what is quickly becoming a disappointing season. I'll get into what Billy had to say, why I think he and some others I've spoken to are overreacting and just where this can all lead after the jump.
Billy is easily the most knowledgeable person I know who watches and follows basketball. He played, he's coached, and most importantly he's not a man that generally overreacts to things going sideways. That said, after today's game I was confronted with a series of text messages that I didn't expect from him. Instead of directly quoting him I will sum up pretty quickly what was said.
After running down a brief recap of the game Billy simply replied that it was terrible and we need to forget about the post-season. When I pointed out we are still in shape for a (highly) unlikely Tournament birth, or (more likely) an NIT birth I was told simply "NO." You see, after the disappointment of losing this one Billy decided that due to expectations coming into this year, and based on what we had seen earlier the NIT is simply not good enough. Essentially that if we can go that way we should turn it down because it is below our expectations and subsequently below us to play. This was an interesting view, especially coming from the man that has been the most level-headed basketball fan I've ever known.
I am admittedly too ignorant to the intricacies of basketball on any level to speak with more than a layman's view of what we have witnessed this year and last. Last year we all assumed it was youth that was causing losses to pile up once we got into the Pac-10 portion of the schedule. I still think that in principle that wasn't an incorrect assumption. In similar games this year we're seeing Klay step up as well as others, but seemingly never all at once, UW notwithstanding of course. This year it just seems that while talent is certainly is in place, as well as a fair amount of experience, the ability to close down bad opponents and play up to superior opponents comes and goes as freely as possible. This team is wildly inconsistent and quite possibly one of the most frustrating teams we have ever had to watch.
That said, it is still a talented team, and one that can make some noise in a post season tournament. Right now, to my uneducated eye, it looks like we're headed towards the NIT. This is disappointing in a season where earlier we looked to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but it is not without merit or value. In the grand scheme of tradition we simply haven't seen the post-season that often, so to me any experience that can be gained is invaluable. Right now this team can't seem to focus in and put the hammer down in a so called "must-win" situation. Having to do so in a post-season tournament is something that can give them that experience as a group. If they lose, they go home, but if they win they keep fighting and it only gets tougher. It can serve to build the confidence of a group that unlike Low, Weaver, Cowgill, etc. is seemingly lacking in confidence in what they MUST do to win.
The NIT for this team would be the consolation prize when compared to the NCAA Tournament. It doesn't get the coverage on TV, it doesn't draw NBA scouts as well, and it doesn't merit the talks of greatness that surround teams that perform on the bigger stage. The NIT is a learning experience, for the post-season, for execution, but most importantly for focus. Billy didn't want to see this team go that route because
I want to see a Final Four Banner flying above Friel Court in the next few years, and this team is too good not to expect to get there, and to not go out and get it.
While I can appreciate the zeal with which that statement is made I made the point that Bennett's teams had to lose to learn to win. For whatever reasons, maybe the coaching change, maybe the changes in offensive and defensive philosophy, maybe all of it this group of Cougar basketballers has not taken to winning, and doing so consistently as quickly as their predecessors did. Billy is right, we should expect to be good, even great, and to make deep runs into the tournament, but right now these guys need to learn to win. The NIT is a perfect chance to do so. Depending on the brackets they could well end up Big/biggish fish in a smaller pond than the NCAA Tournament. That leaves the potential for victory greater, but the disappointment of loss increases as well. When you are a bigger team, and a better team, you should win and to fail to do so might just be what this team needs headed into the offseason to focus in and really get to work on the things the MUST do to make a run next season. We have seen this team play brilliantly, the only glaring weakness being rebounding. IF that team were to show up in the NIT I would think they'd have a good chance at winning the whole thing. There again, if they show up and get rolled by some random team from a conference no one has ever heard of it further stokes the fires.
Unfortunately for us fans this is frustrating. For the players it has to be downright infuriating. It has to sting like hell to lose multiple times to teams that you know can be beaten, especially to those that you SHOULD beat. Bone knows that, he was singling out today's game starting last weekend, not the Arizona game. Why? Because this had the potential to be let-down city after a big match up. In the post-season no match ups allow for let-down city, each one gets bigger and bigger until you either win it all or get knocked out. NCAA or NIT it doesn't matter, the Cougs need to learn to fight and fight and fight to earn their place as a team at the top of the league and in the Tournament. I know that my main line here might be a bit unclear, but if I have to boil it down it is simply this: For the Cougs to take the next step we need to get to the post season. Win and learn to do so with high stakes and you have what you need to succeed on a bigger stage next year. Lose and learn, the hard way, what it will take to make the NCAA Tournament and to succeed there as well.
This loss hurt. There can be no doubt about that when the most level-headed basketball fan on the planet is ready to destroy something in anger. The post season is where this team's growth will take place. Win or Lose this season should be business left unfinished for everyone on the team. It may well prove to be incentive enough to keep Klay or Casto from looking at potential NBA prospects moving forward. This team can and will be a tournament team before they all leave WSU. I have no doubt about that. Extra practice, extra games, and extra competitiveness and desperation are all good things that can only help this team grow. Lets be happy we might just get to see that growth this year and get prepared for what good things should be coming next year. This season is far from over and only good things can come from our boys fighting through the adversity of their own making.