If one thing has become abundantly clear this year, it's this: The 2008-09 Cougars don't have a go-to guy on offense. They might have one eventually in the form of Klay Thompson, but he's obviously not quite ready for primetime yet after being so easily neutralized by Pitt, Baylor and Gonzaga.
And as we've documented multiple times here, just about every other offensive player for the Cougs has some sort of flaw that keeps him from being that. Taylor Rochestie can't make shots with any consistency, Aron Baynes is limited to a handful of back-to the-basket moves with no face-up game to speak of, Daven Harmeling relies almost entirely on defensive breakdowns to get his shots, and Nikola Koprivica is ... well ... inconsistent.
Of course, this is not nearly the problem that those in the mainstream media would lead you to believe. While it's nice to have that go-to guy in a close game or when you absolutely have to have a bucket at a critical juncture, it is entirely possible to have a perfectly effective offense with a team-oriented approach. If anyone should know that, it's Coug fans -- it's what carried us to the tournament in 2007, when WSU posted an adjusted offensive efficiency of 112.6 (54th nationally).
The question then becomes, how to use this particular group of players more effectively?
I've got one solution, as intimated by this post's headline: Feed the big man.
Having been a shooting guard in his incarnation as a basketball player -- with heavy emphasis on the shooting -- Tony Bennett seems to prefer perimeter-oriented offenses designed to beat teams from outside in. With guys like Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver at your disposal, that seems like a darn good strategy. But this team is struggling, mainly because it doesn't have a Low or Weaver.
In the meantime, for the better part of the past two-plus years, Baynes has been an effective interior player, but only generally in an opportunistic fashion. Most of his touches have come from either the drive and dish or deep post position generated by effective ball movement on the perimeter that presents a favorable matchup down low. There has been very little concerted effort to get the ball to Baynes in positions where he can score, as he was used as primarily a secondary weapon -- and a darn effective one at that.
But I'm here to tell you that the time is upon us to make that concerted effort to get the big Aussie involved, as the things that kept the Cougs from doing that in the past seem to be improved enough to trust Baynes with the ball in his hands more often. This team needs an offensive player that it can count on to either make a shot or get to the free throw line, and when Baynes gets the right opportunities, he's as good as (or better than) anyone on the team at doing that.
We've known for well over a year now that Baynes can score in the post on just about anybody when he's able to back them down one-on-one. In his limited shots this year, he's converting 63 percent of his attempts. The problem, of course, is that those attempts are limited -- just 7.4 per game, even after Sunday's 15-shot outburst.
Part of the reason for that is that he's previously been somewhat of a black hole when he gets the ball. Last year, he was flustered by any kind of a double team, which teams sent at him early and often in Pac-10 play. He either turned the ball over, or had to dribble out of the post, effectively giving up any advantage generated by the double team. But this year, his passing seems improved. Nobody will ever confuse Baynes with Vlade Divac or Brad Miller, but he doesn't have to be that good -- he just needs to be able to quickly recognize the double team and fire the ball out to an open teammate to take advantage of the weakness the double team causes in the opponent's defense, something I think he's good enough to do at least some of the time. (Which is enough.)
Another reason Baynes has been somewhat of a secondary option has been the plethora of talented big men in the Pac-10. But the Lopez twins and Kevin Love are gone, with Jordan Hill left as the only guy that has a history of playing Baynes tough. Unlike last year, there's no reason to believe that Baynes won't be able to be consistently effective in Pac-10 play.
Now, it's not as simple as just throwing the ball into the big man. There's a certain element of taking what the defense gives you, since for Baynes to be effective he has to catch it in certain spots. But I think Tony Bennett is creative enough to come up with sets that can get Baynes good shots often enough to make him a legitimate force on the offensive end.
There's another issue, though, that comes out of feeding Baynes. If you're going to feed one guy on one block, you've got to have another big that can come from the weakside to crash the boards. The one thing Baynes does exceptionally well is rebound, as he's responsible for the vast majority of our offensive boards, but when he's posting up, he's essentially removed as an offensive rebounding option. For the last two years, that guy opposite Baynes has been Robbie Cowgill. But this year, Daven Harmeling -- the worst rebounder on the team -- has been getting the majority of the minutes at the 4. It cuts down somewhat on the double teams, as opponents are reluctant to leave Harmeling open on the wing, but it also means a Baynes post shot is almost certainly a one-and-done proposition.
My thought? Go bigger more often. Make sure both Caleb Forrest and DeAngelo Casto get plenty of minutes alongside Baynes. Besides providing rebound support, both are legitimate secondary offensive options. With Casto on the floor, you've actually got a guy who can post-screen for Baynes and set up on the opposite block for his own offensive opportunities. This isn't without consequences, as the odd man out, unfortunately, becomes Koprivica.
Of course, it's not that easy. Koprivica is one of your most versatile defenders, and you don't want to cut off your nose to spite your face -- you have to hope that whatever gains you get offensively are more than what you're giving up defensively. But the reality is that Bennett might already be thinking along these lines. Nik's minutes have started dipping pretty dramatically -- just 18 and 14 minutes in the past two games after never playing less than 21 in the previous nine -- and he came off the bench against Idaho.
I'm not saying every possession should go through Baynes' hands, because he's just not that skilled. But I think the writing is on the wall that bigger might actually be better for this team, which will represent a pretty significant shift in thinking for Bennett. The thinking here is that Baynes needs to be getting 10-12 shots a game for this offense to realize its potential.