For the past five years, there have been three things in my life that I know I can count on every day:
- My wife's love for me
- The Cougar Way of playing basketball
And I suppose that's why I used words like "embarrassed" and "devastated" in my emotional post midway through the second half last night. For a night -- actually for just one half -- the Cougar Way of playing basketball was nowhere to be found. Tony Bennett summed it up best on his postgame radio show:
"Everything that we value, we didn't do."
A succinct, yet utterly comprehensive statement. In an eight-minute span to open the second half, a three-point game exploded into a 24-point blowout, and the Cougar Way was nowhere to be found. We did not value the basketball. We were beat repeatedly in transition. We were not patient on offense. And, worst of all, for a time it appeared that we had ... quit.
A lot of my former sportswriter colleagues would tease me mercilessly if they read me using the word "we" here -- they'd say things like, "Do you play for the team?" -- but one of the beautiful things about being a Cougar, especially as it relates to this basketball team, is that, yeah, we do all feel like we're a part of the team, from the managers to the Zzu Cru to schmucks like me who spend entirely too much time writing about all of it.
And you know what? I don't apologize for feeling that way. I am an emotional guy who gets as emotionally involved in his teams and their success as anyone. I live and die with my teams, and last night, I died. Big time.
But today is a new day, the emotions are back in check, and we all have to be careful about overreacting to one loss.
Gonzaga deserves a lot of the credit for what happened last night. Yes, there is no doubting the Cougars handed the Bulldogs myriad opportunities, but the list of teams in the country who could take advantage of those opportunities with such efficiency and explosiveness is a short one. North Carolina? Tennessee? Louisville? That's what we're talking about here. Gonzaga's not as good as North Carolina (nobody is), but to even be favorably compared in the same breath as the Tar Heels is about the biggest compliment I could give the Bulldogs.
That said, the Cougars wouldn't have beaten many teams the way they played in the second half. A lesser team might have only won by 10 or 15 points, but the end result would have been the same. As Bennett put it, "we lost our way," and somehow we've got to be able to find it once again.
I don't have an exact formula, but I can tell you exactly where the message is going to start.
Ever since success made its way to Pullman, Tony Bennett has preached that the Cougars simply aren't good enough to not play basketball their way and win games, and that was on glorious display for the world to see last night. Because of that, last night might end up being a good thing long term, because for the first time with this crew, Tony has "Exhibit A" to point to every time these guys are tempted to not do things the Cougar Way.
That "Exhibit A" didn't come sooner is a testament to Bennett, and a big reason why we all were so stunned by what we witnessed last night. Most teams go through at least one stinker like that every year, but games like that have happened so infrequently since the Bennetts have come to Pullman -- Oklahoma State in 2004? UCLA last year? -- that it's a shock when it happens. It's a testament to what Dick and Tony Bennett have built that games like that surprise us so much when they happen.
Sometimes, players just have to experience something before they truly believe it. I'm sure they believe now.
So how do we move forward? It's got to start with the upperclassmen -- it's not like the freshmen were the ones completely losing their composure last night. Bennett said as much after the game (via Vince Grippi and SportsLink):
"They've played in a lot of big games and a lot of tough settings. That was disappointing, because I expected more from them, I hold them to a higher standard than that. Hey look, the guys aren't here that were here last year and they've got to come to grips with that. It's a little tougher when you've got the bullseye on your chest, and they have to figure out ways and we've got to figure out ways how to deal with that and how to help the team, whether it's sharing the ball more or just doing the little things. We have to get back to those things in a setting like this."
This team has put together some great stretches of basketball this year, and even put some of those stretches together against the best teams on the schedule -- I even said on the game thread last night that I thought the first half last night was the best half of the year -- but the Cougs don't seem to be able to maintain their discipline and hard play for an entire game. While our ineffective stretches were magnified by an absolute buzz saw of an opponent last night, it was siimilar stretches of offensive and defensive breakdowns that doomed us against Pitt and Baylor as well. We are learning that the margin for error for this team is just extremely small.
Ultimately, I have no doubt that this team will strengthen its resolve. Mental toughness is a hallmark of the program, we have no reason to believe that a Tony Bennett coached team won't respond the right way. We've seen his teams bounce back too many times before to think otherwise.
But the seniors and junior on this team are going to have to reach down for something extra and show these young guys the Cougar Way, and they have to do it now. As new as this season still feels, we are now nearly one third the way through our schedule. It goes fast, and this team is quickly running out of time to pull it together in time to make a real impact before conference play.
"We need to get some leadership from the right guys, and it has to come soon."