I truly thought we were finished with this conversation after the first Stanford game, but I guess not.
Throughout the nonconference schedule, Tony Bennett channelled his inner Lou Piniella and relied heavily on his veterans in the big games. It was a strategy that generally backfired -- usually spectacularly -- as the Cougs repeatedly fell apart in the second half, culminated by that embarrassment of a game against the Huskies in Pullman.
Then, the second half of the first game against Stanford happened. DeAngelo Casto absolutely took over, and it was clear that what the Cougs needed was a mix of youth and experience to create the mental and physical toughness needed to compete against the athletes of the Pac-10 every night.
Bennett, too, seemed to have finally bought into that notion, starting Casto against Oregon State and Marcus Capers against Oregon and UCLA, in turn taking a bite out of the minutes of Nikola Koprivica and Daven Harmeling. Capers played 31 minutes and Casto 29 in the rout of Oregon; the duo then played 27 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively against UCLA. Meanwhile, Harmeling played only 10 minutes at Oregon and never even got off the bench against UCLA, while Koprivica played 7 and 10. This team finally seemed to be on a roll
But then the USC game happened, and we seem to be right back where we started: Unable to play against superior athletes because Bennett insists on trotting out veteran units.
Capers did start the game against USC, and he and Casto both logged good minutes as the Cougs took control of the game early in the second. But as the game started to slip away, Bennett did what most coaches do: He turned to his veterans as a calming influence down the stretch, hoping they could hold onto the lead. Capers left the game, never to return after 14 minutes played, with the Cougs leading by eight at the 10:48 mark; Casto left the game, never to return after 15 minutes played, with the Cougs leading by three at the 4:51 mark.
Of course, we know how the story ends. The veterans were terrible. They couldn't defend, repeatedly getting beaten to the cup and fouling, and they couldn't make an open shot. The Cougs would go on to lose by two, frittering away what was an eight-point lead by being outscored 11-3 over those final five minutes (meaningless Rochestie 3-pointer notwithstanding) with a lineup of Rochestie, Thompson, Harmeling, Forrest and Baynes. Most galling was the presence of Harmeling -- the guy who only played 10 minutes in the previsous two games combined, and didn't play against UCLA, played 29 minutes but only shot 1-of-5 with two rebounds.
Did Bennett learn from this? Nope.
Capers never got off the bench against Arizona State, and Casto only played meaningful minutes once Bennett got desperate enough to use him to try and stop James Harden -- he had only played five minutes in the first half. It happened again on Saturday against Arizona, as Capers and Casto played just 16 minutes combined. Then, of course, there was last night. We did get a healthy dose of Casto, but Capers played just two minutes as the Cardinal shot their way to a relatively easy victory.
Now, if we look at each case individually, there are perfectly logical explanations for each. Against ASU, we explained it away as Capers lacking the outside shot to combat the ASU zone. Against Arizona, it appeared the freshmen were just turning the ball over too much (although, neither played much in the first half and the three turnovers between them weren't really out of line with what everyone else was doing), and it doesn't readily appear that there was much Capers would have done to stop Lawrence Hill.
But taken in their totality, this is a disturbing trend back into the abyss that I thought this team had escaped before the meltdown against USC. As we've stated on this site multiple times -- and has been proven again and again -- the experienced guys, while valuable and important parts of this team, simply cannot win games by themselves unless they're playing against an athletically similar team. (There's a reason why the strategy worked well in the comeback against OSU, for example.)
Beyond that, Bennett doesn't even get what you would normally expect to get from veterans. At the very least, a unit that's 80 percent seniors should be physically and mentally tough when they're on the floor. They're not. They don't scrap. They crumble under pressure. Faced with fading NCAA Tournament chances last night, these seniors in their final games as college players were flat as a pancake on defense. As Harmeling said, "They were hungry. We were the opposite of that."
It's inexcusable, and Bennett bears at least some of the responsibility for continually putting his team in this position with his unit choices. Over the course of an 82-game NBA season, you can afford to keep going back to a formula, hoping that a guy shoots his way out of a slump, or that something will just all of a sudden click. In a 30-game college season, though, there's just not time to waste. Every game is important, and this team is quickly running out of time to prove it should have one of those 34 at large bids.
There's a famous saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Right now, Tony Bennett is looking insane. Let's hope he snaps out of it before it's too late, remembering how Patrick Christopher abused both Harmeling and Koprivica in the last matchup. We're going to need our athletes on the floor tomorrow -- and for the rest of the year -- if we're to salvage anything out of this season.