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Random Thoughts, Vol. I: Offense

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Author's note: Be sure to listen to the 18 and Life podcast below. It's the best podcast on Pac-10 basketball in the land, and that's a SCIENTIFIC FACT.

I have a lot of ideas floating around in my head about posts for Cougar basketball. Unfortunately, few of them flow together well enough to merit a lengthy, coherent post. Therefore, I present to you my first edition of CougCenter Random Thoughts. Tonight's edition centers on the Cougar offense. Let's get to it!

The biggest under-the-radar storyline of the season, so far, is how different this year's Cougar team is from last year's. Different in a good way, obviously, but also in a suprising way.

Four Factors 2009-10 (Rank) 2010-11 (Rank)
Shooting (eFG%) 49.9 (122nd) 56.5 (6th)
Turnovers (TO%) 20.8 (91st) 17.1 (21st)
Rebounding (OR%) 35.5 (81st) 28.9 (280th)
Free Throw Rate (FTR) 45.5 (29th) 324 (274th)

 

The shocking thing isn't that the Cougars are scoring this year. It's how they are scoring. Last year's strengths are this year's weaknesses and last year's weaknesses are this year's strenghts.

The Cougs are sixth - sixth! - nationally in shooting percentage by eFG%, which adjusts for the added value of the three point shot. This is the most important measure of all the four factors. Do this well, and you can cut yourself some slack in the other areas. Great teams shoot the ball well. Teams that shoot the ball well also outscore their opponents, which oddly enough is the goal of the game of basketball. The Cougs have done this to near perfection this year.

All the Cougars' five key offensive contributors have an eFG% over 50 this year, which is well above average. Klay Thompson, Faisal Aden, DeAngelo Casto, Reggie Moore and Marcus Capers are all in that category. Bet you weren't expecting Capers to be in that category. Well, I'm sure Nuss was, but I wasn't.

The Cougs went from just good at protecting the ball last year, to great this year. A 17.1% turnover rate is near Bennettesque. Don't believe me? The 2007 tournament team posted a rate of 16.5%.

Now, here's what I don't get: how does a young team that's great at offensive rebounding and free throw rate suddenly lose all their skill a year later? Read on for some ideas.

I think the consensus going into this year was that our young Cougs would improve in every category this year. After all, the core of the team stayed exactly the same, and the only key contributor to leave was Nikola Koprivica. As much as we love Nik, he wasn't exactly a juggernaut on the offensive glass. He also wasn't banging his way through the lane and drawing fouls.

But after digging a little deeper, the truth is there is more turnover in the Cougar lineup than I thought. WSU lost Xavier Thames and James Watson, in addition to Koprivica. Thames' role has been replaced - and then some - by Faisal Aden. Aden is joined as a newcomer by impact freshman Patrick Simon (and we've also seen a few minutes devoted to Dre Winston Jr. at the point). But Watson's offensive rebounding skill will be sorely missed - he was the best by far on the team in 2009-10. And our best player in terms of free throw rate last season?

Wait for it...

Wait for it....

CHARLIE ENQUIST. Boom. Your mind has been blown. Our best player at scoring from the line has seen limited time this season, especially when you consider his beefier minutes last season. So, our best offensive rebounder and free throw earners from last season have been basically nonexistent this season.

I'm deceiving you a little, obviously. Enquist's sample size last year was too small to be of any real statistical value. Our best player at earning fouls, clearly, was Reggie Moore. That's why his injury was one of a few things keeping the Cougs from being a truly elite team during the non-conference schedule. Now that he's back, he still isn't attacking the basket like he's 100 percent. The good news is that as long as Reggie's physical status keeps improving, the Cougar offense improves right along with it. Reggie is essential to this year's Pac-10 run; when the shots from the outside stop falling, that's when Reggie needs to go to work on the inside. Be it dishing to Casto or Klay near to the rim, or finding his own way to the basket. I saw a couple times during the Diamond Head Classic that Reggie would shy away from contact at times when he was in the lane. That won't last for long. Eventually Reggie Moore should be a fixture at the line, especially if the Cougs need him to make a scoring impact.

Free throw rate will also improve when free throw shooting by this team improves. That's going to happen: no way this team sustains a 65% clip for the entire season. Right?

Please?

Offensive rebounding, sadly, doesn't have a savior in sight. This is where losing James Watson - in a word - sucks. The only potential hope sitting on the bench is Steven Bjornstad, and like Reggie, he's been recovering from an injury the past two months. Relative to that, whether or not he earns solid minutes in 2011 remains to be seen. Furthermore, Bjornstad may prove to be a better defensive rebounder than offensive. The good news is DeAngelo Casto is due for some progression on the offensive glass. His OR% sits at 9.5 right now. Last year it was 11.2. Honestly, most of the team is due for some improvement in rebounding. Still, the Cougars sitting at 280th nationally in offensive rebounding percent is a bad sign. And it puts more pressure on Klay Thompson and Faisal Aden to make their shots - because they won't be getting a second chance.

You can survive without offensive rebounding. Every Bennett team did, but the idea there was that you're selling out in the name of transition defense - not to mention being set for defensive rebounding on the other end. Ken Bone/Lorenzo Romar style teams don't often play that style of game.

This is as good a time as any to transition to the subject of Brock Motum. I'm a big Motum fan - part of the reason being he snatches 10.6% of the available offensive rebounds while he's out on the floor. That's good for 301st nationally, and best on the team. He's a reverse of Abe Lodwick, who is good on the defensive glass but not so much when following shots. This is one of the many reasons we don't have a full-time player at the 4 position. My feeling is that Motum's upside in defensive rebounding and as a screener means eventually he could supplant Lodwick as the starter. Meanwhile, I'm sure you read JoJo's post on the value of Lodwick. Is being a screener, defender and rebounder enough to earn Abe significant minutes in Pac-10 play? Or does his three-point shot have to start falling as well? It's one of the more intriguing storylines to watch as the season wears on.

I'll hedge my bets - as the president of the Abe Lodwick Fan Club (TM) I won't give up on Abe, but I also would be more than happy to see Brock earn a start or two.

Finally, let's talk Faisal Aden, as he's one of the big differences between this edition of the Cougar team and the previous one. He's good. Really good. For an outside shooter, he makes 54% of his two point shots (which include a good number of midrange jumpers) and 42% of his threes. That's just phenomenal. This is really the only reason he's been allowed to get away with shooting the ball the number of times that he has so far. He takes 34.5% of the team's shots when he's on the floor. That's more than Klay, and the 19th highest percentage in all of college basketball. I would more be worried about this, but I think we're going to see regression in the form of Reggie Moore taking more shots and Aden taking less. That's going to come out of necessity: defenses will start to game plan better for Aden, and Reggie will need to occasionally shoulder more of the scoring load. If the Cougs can get three perimeter scoring threats going, we'll finally get to see something like what an upperclassman Low/Weaver/Akognon backcourt might have looked like. And that would've looked incredible.

I plan to add some more defensive thoughts down the road, but since we're talking about Aden let's touch on his defense. Brian put it perfectly when he told me in an e-mail that Aden has good hands, but his footwork needs improvement. Aden is second-best on the team in steal percentage - right behind Klay. He anticipates the ball well and can intercept passes when he's in the right position. The problem is he'll occasionally miss a rotation and leave his man wide open, and in terms of on-ball defense he's far behind Marcus Capers (then again, so is most everyone). I have to believe that the defense, combined with Capers' offensive prowess this season (yes I'm aware he still can't hit threes), is why he is coming off the bench at the moment. But don't cry for Faisal Aden: he's going to earn a boatload of minutes this Spring, especially since he gives us the luxury of actually resting Klay Thompson on occasion this season.