A lot of people who don't have Pac-12 Networks or don't feel like taking time out of their busy schedules to watch the basketball team probably saw the final score for last night's loss to Stanford and figured it was something along the lines of "same old Cougs."
That would be a mistake. And it would be a shame.
I know most people are somewhere between apathetic and disillusioned when it comes to the state of the program, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn't be. I understand it -- I was asking hard questions after Saturday's loss.
But above all else I try to be as fair as possible, and the Cougs -- from Ken Bone on down -- deserve a ton of credit for the game that was played. They did just about everything you would expect them to need to do to beat Stanford, only to come up short anyway thanks to what can probably be best described as a fluke shooting performance by the Cardinal.
Sometimes, the randomness of sports is incredibly enthralling. Sometimes it's amazingly irritating. Last night was the latter. On to the postmortem.
Ken Bone coached his best game of the year. It started with putting Will DiIorio into the starting lineup in place of Royce Woolridge, something he said he did because of Stanford's height. It was a bold move for a guy who generally prefers tweaks to big changes, but a sound one: DiIorio was coming off the best game of his career, and Woolridge has been struggling.
It worked. The team came out with energy on both ends of the floor, and DiIorio's added length was a real advantage on defense. Although he was a non-factor on offense, DiIorio once again did enough to make himself valuable and is starting to make me believe that he actually can be a legitimate contributor.
Normally, you'd like a strong shooter at the 3, but the offense didn't suffer as much as you'd think with him and Shelton on the floor at the same time, and the defense was stellar -- not shocking when considering the defense ran 6-3, 6-5, 6-5, 6-10 and 6-10. I'm not sure that lineup works against everyone; whether DiIorio can stay with legitimate wings (of which Stanford has basically none) is a concern. However, I think he's earned the right to for us all to see how it goes on Saturday against Cal.
We'll file that under things I never thought I'd write, but I'm cautiously optimistic about what DiIorio can do going forward.
Additionally, the offensive gameplan was masterful, particularly the post halftime adjustments. The Cougs did struggle a bit in the first half (again), as they had a tough time adapting to Stanford's physical style of play -- which the Pac-12 officials uncharacteristically allowed basically unchecked.* The Cardinal, employing an aggressive strategy similar to Washington, blocked five of WSU's 20 two-point shots in the first half, thanks largely to soft takes at the rim by the Cougs.
*To be clear, I'm not complaining about the officiating at all. It was fair on both ends of the floor, and I wish more Pac-12 games were officiated this way
But in the second half, the team adapted -- they used more ball screens than I can remember them using this year, and it created confusion for the Cardinal. For a stretch in the second half, as the team built a lead heading into the final minutes, this offense looked as good as it has all year. Despite the ineptitude down the stretch (which I'll get to soon enough), the team finished by scoring 1.03 points per possession against the Cardinal -- one of just six times this year they've allowed greater than one point per trip. It was more than the Cardinal allowed to Minnesota, UCLA and Belmont.
The defense was awesome. You might think that absurd, given that the Cougs gave up 1.20 points per possession. For the uninitiated, 1.0 is more or less average, so 1.2 is really, really not good on its face. Remember how Kansas shredded WSU? This was only .02 points per possession better. For all intents and purposes, this was basically the same in the end.
So how can I say the defense was awesome? Simple: I look at process first, results second. And the process was really good. The Cougs were aggressive, even doing some trapping on the perimeter. They generally got out on shooters, limiting Stanford to just 12 three-point attempts -- just 25 percent of the Cardinal's overall attempts were from beyond the arc. WSU normally gives up about 37 percent of shots from out there, so this is a testament to the relative lack of open looks from the perimeter last night.
There were few open looks inside, also: Stanford made just 15 of their 32 twos. And despite all those interior misses, Stanford -- one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country -- was able to secure just five offensive rebounds, a paltry 23 percent of their misses, and I think four of them came on two possessions. They normally grab 35 percent. It was a great team effort.
But sometimes, there's just nothing you can do about a team's hot shooting. Even if every single one of those 12 shots was wide open -- the weren't, but go with me -- would you expect the opponent to hit eight of them? Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle were a combined 26 of 114 (22.8 percent) on the season; they were 5 of 7 last night. Sometimes, you just get beat.
Because of that shooting, the Cardinal were able to open up a lead, forcing the Cougs to shoot a little quicker than they'd like to. When they missed virtually all of those shots, they were forced to foul, and it snowballed from there.
As if to underscore the absurdity, Stanford hit 24 of 26 free throws. Yep, it was that kind of night. But don't let it distract you from the underlying performance. It was good. Very good.
Well, except for That Damn Zone™. It was predictably awful on the handful of possessions it was deployed, and I wish Ken Bone would just flush the stupid thing already.
This might have been Woolridge's most encouraging game of the year. Those aforementioned ball screens? Woolridge did a great job of working them throughout the evening, resulting in an efficient performance: 10 points on 5-of-7 two-point shooting with 3 assists and just one turnover. He took just one three (which he missed). He was much more involved in the offense, and was an undeniably positive piece of it. Very encouraging.
One thing that caught my eye, though: Beyond the use of the screens, there were a number of other opportunities for Woolridge to turn the corner in isolation and attack the basket, and he either could not or would not do it, pulling the ball back out. Maybe he's just being cautious, but I think we probably should at least entertain the idea that maybe he just doesn't have the athletic burst needed to be a big-time scorer who gets to the rim as part of his arsenal. If so, that could explain why Bone is trying to so hard to turn Woolridge into a point guard.
And if so, perhaps the increased use of ball screens is a great solution -- you don't have to be super athletic to run an effective pick and roll or pick and pop. The most important thing is to be smart, and he looked awfully smart last night.
Last thing: The more I watch Woolridge, the more appreciation I get for his defense. He's really, really good. Like really good.
The team's lack of composure in the crunch continues to be disturbing. I don't know what else to say here that I didn't say after Saturday's game. Once again, in the crunch, the team failed to execute. This time, it was a savvy move by Johnny Dawkins to change to a 2-3 zone after the Cougs had been shredding his team's man defense. To put it simply, WSU looked flustered when it happened, and it resulted in some impatient shots, particularly from the seniors, as the Cougars sat stuck on 57 points for the better part of four minutes as Stanford blew past them with a 14-0 run.
I'm beginning to think this team's issues in that regard are twofold. First, there's no experienced point guard to direct traffic. It's hurting the team in late game scenarios, but that's a dead horse and it's not going to change, so I'll leave it at that.
Second, and this is something I hope can change, the guys who should be the calming influence in these situations -- Motum and Mike Ladd -- don't seem to have the ability to interject some composure into the team. Motum's fiery personality sometimes leads him to some questionable decisions, while Ladd seems reluctant to direct traffic. Maybe this develops at some point, but we're halfway through the season and it's now cost them at least three games.
The Cougs really deserved a better fate last night. With a little bit of composure and just a dash of luck, these guys could very easily be 2-0 in conference. Instead, they're 0-2 and fans are growing impatient.