For two years, it seemed like everything came so easy to Tony Bennett. Whether it was having the job his father came out of retirement to groom handed to him, or guiding his first two teams to the NCAA Tournament at a school that previously had amounted to Pac-10 purgatory for years, Bennett always seemed to have the Midas touch.
Now? Bennett's just another coach trying desperately to figure out which buttons to push in an attempt to make a difference with a team that's struggling.
And those struggles have been well documented. I'll spare you the "beating a dead horse" gif, but suffice it to say that while this team is as stingy on defense as ever, the offense has been flat terrible against legitimate, big-conference competition, averaging just an 84.2 efficiency rating (what's that?). Contrast that with a 111.9 rating against the small-major competition that has made up the rest of the schedule. (In case you're not sufficiently agape at that gap, in a typical 60-possession game for the Cougs, that's a 17-point difference.)
Over the past two years, Bennett earned a well-deserved reputation as a supreme game manager -- a guy unafraid to tinker with personnel and tactics to win a game. His halftime adjustments became the thing of legends, as his teams were famous for turning first-half deficits into victories. Bennett was regarded as a coach who got every ounce of potential out of every one of his players.
But this year, the story has been much different. His teams are melting down in the second half. He's got a number of players who appear to be underperforming. And, perhaps most puzzing, he's been remakably vanilla in his personnel adjustments in spite of all the struggles, electing to stick with his upperclassmen, even as they falter in spectacular fashion.
In searching for what might be done differently to try and get some more out of this offense, I decided to analyze the proportion of minutes going to each player for the Cougs. Here are how the minutes broke down in the first three games against "like" competition, as the Cougs went 1-2 against MSU, Pitt and Baylor with an average efficiency rating of 85.0:
- Rochestie 37.3
- Thompson 31.5
- Koprivica 30.2
- Baynes 27.7
- Harmeling 26.5
- Forrest 19.7
- Casto 15.2
- Capers 8.5
- Lodwick 1.8
- Harthun 1.3
Clearly underwhelmed by these offensive performances, Bennett elected to go with an even more upperclassmen-heavy rotation in the next three games against "like" competition, giving Caleb Forrest major minutes against Gonzaga and inserting him into the starting lineup against LSU and UW:
- Rochestie 37.0
- Thompson 30.3
- Forrest 29.7
- Koprivica 29.0
- Baynes 26.7
- Harmeling 22.3
- Casto 13.0
- Capers 7.7
- Lodwick 2.3
- Harthun 1.3
But while we all like Forrest and appreciate his perceived contributions to the offense, his increased playing has not made a positive impact on the overall effectiveness of the unit. The results were largely the same for this rotation change, as the Cougs went 0-3 with an average 83.4 efficiency rating.
The interesting thing to me is looking where Forrest's minutes have come from. Rochestie, Thompson, Koprivica and Baynes all have had essentially consistent minutes across all six games; guys who have seen their minutes decrease include Harmeling, Casto and Capers.
Really, all Bennett has done is shuffle the minutes in the frontcourt -- he hasn't really changed the essential nature of his approach to getting his players to put the ball in the basket. Rather than Harmeling getting the bulk of the minutes at the 4, those minutes are now going to Forrest, with Harmeling getting some run at the 3 and Casto seeing the floor less.
That speaks volumes about how Bennett perceives are the strengths of his team. We knew he preferred a perimeter oriented motion attack over the past two years, but it made sense with guys like Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low in the fold. Now? I'm pretty sure it doesn't make sense anymore. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Bennett has continued to stick with his guards.
But if Bennett wants to get the most out of this team, he might need to rethink his love affair with his perimeter players. I've got two suggestions if Tony's reading.
First of all, trade some defense for offense. I know this is sacrilege in the Bennett world, but the truth is that this team has some room to fudge on the defensive end. Only Gonzaga has truly run away from the Cougs, as the offensive efficiency numbers of WSU's other opponents were held around 100 or below before being inflated by late-game free throws. This team can afford to give up a little defense if it can somehow add some offense in exchange.
To me, this primarily means getting Koprivica off the floor. As much as I can appreciate Nik's contributions on defense, the offense seems to just grind to a near standstill when he's in the game. Those pretty drives, such as that slicing thing of beauty on Saturday, are way too few and far in between. He dribbles too much, still is shooting too many 3's -- I hate to say I told you so, but he's just 3 for his past 12 in these games -- and when he does decide to pass, he's indecisive. We've got to get more from this position.
Who should Bennett turn to? I'm not sure. But whether it's Capers or one of the little-used reserves, Harthun or Lodwick, Bennett's got to give them a longer leash than what he's shown so far. Bennett has done a remarkable Lou Piniella impression this year, as it feels like the first time one of the young guys makes a mistake -- especially on defense -- he finds a seat on the pine.
This, of course, is in stark contrast to the upperclassmen, who seem to be able to make as many mistakes as they can muster without threat of consequence. Even though there clearly were problems after MSU, Pitt and Baylor, Bennett went more and more conservative as the season has slipped farther and farther away. Here's to hoping it's not too late to give one of these guys a chance to infuse some offense while the season is still salvageable.
Second, make this an interior-orented offense. The best scorer on this team is Aron Baynes. Yet Baynes is only averaging the third-most shots on the team. That's a disgrace. Even more puzzling about it is that Baynes seems to be the one guy on the team who relishes having the ball in his hands -- he looks like a guy who would love to take the scoring burden on this team.
Unfortunately, the Bennett motion offense just doesn't put a high priority on getting the ball into the post. No matter how much they want to get the ball to Baynes, their offensive sets simply aren't going to provide those looks often enough, because it's not what they're designed to do. It's time to put in some more sets designed to get Baynes the ball, and run them more frequently.
Bennett also might want to take one more step in acknowledging that the frontcourt is his strength and start playing some bigger lineups. What's to stop the Cougs from putting Casto, Forrest and Baynes all on the floor at the same time? No, there's not a 3-point threat in that bunch, but Forrest presents enough range that the trio should be able to play on the together without stepping on each other too much. And Casto possesses the athleticism to guard smaller quicker guys; while he would play the 4 on offense, he could at least adequately guard the other team's 3 on defense. For example, how different might Saturday have been with Casto on Quincy Pondexter?
If this team became more interior oriented, you might just find a nice side-effect: Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson start playing better, thanks to decreased pressure.
Whatever the solution, we know something radically different has to be done. This team cannot simply settle for shuffling minutes around among similar players. It's time for a pretty radical shift in approach.