Like most of you, I didn't have the benefit of visual stimuli from last night's game. What I did have was Nameck on the radio ("He traveled and gets away with it!" --- We kid because we love, Bud), Grippi's suberb game analysis this morning, and a whole truckload of advanced statistical goodness.
A lot of us are wondering whom should be blamed with respect to our favorite sports team facepalming their way to a blown 18-point lead, and a gut-wrenching loss (in a game they absolutely had to win). The diplomatic thing to do would be to simply credit Stanford for being the better team and playing an inspired second half performance. I'm not going to do that: Stanford just isn't that good, and they've lucked their way to a 5-7 performance in conference play by catching teams at the right time in the right place (at home). That combined with the fact they have two players (Green and Fields) who are as good as anyone in the conference right now. But I digress.
One thing I'm not blaming (with apologies to BigWood) is the defense. Yes, I am extremely, painfully aware that we gave up 42 points to a mediocre Stanford offense in the second half. We gave up a metric ton of late shots, and a defensive lapse on the final possession ultimately sealed the deal (props to Klay for owning up to it). However, games are played over the full forty minutes, and overall it wasn't that bad a performance by the Cougars. Remember, average offensive efficiency is somewhere around 100, and the Cougs held the Tree to 94.3. Remember the Arizona defensive job that we all agree upon as awesome? 93.8 offensive efficiency by the Cats. Furthermore, the Stanford offense does only one thing reasonably well: protect the ball. Last night, the Cougars forced their highest turnover percentage on an opponent in Pac-10 play, and their second highest this season (MVSU). That's nothing short of spectacular, and representative of our first-half blowout (18 points off those turnovers, by the way). We weren't as phenomenal in the second half, but again, things tend to regress over forty minutes.
I'm not pretending we're a good defensive team - we aren't, and we're the worst in the Pac-10. We're horrible at defending the three - 256th nationally - and equally bad at defending two point buckets (212th), which is worse as two-point defense more closely correlates with winning. Our D gets by on two things: decent rebounding and a good job of keeping opponents off the line. The latter is one thing you can most definitely criticize the Cougars for not doing Thursday night.
Let's talk about the real culprit now: offense. When you lead by 15 or more points, all it takes is generally an average performance by the O to close out the remainder a game. Opponents would need nothing short of a herculean effort on offense to come back - no matter how good they are - if they can't get stops. We're a good shooting team, but shooting is variable. Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not. Like last night, when Klay and DeAngelo shot well, but Nik and Reggie didn't. These things happen, and so I hesitate to throw numbers 3 and 4 overboard in respect to this game. However, the Cougars still haven't won a game in Pac-10 play when they shoot below 50 in effective field goal percent. So, shooting falls as blame point number one. But it wasn't the biggest issue.
The two things we do an exceptional job on offense normally were just thrown out the window yesterday. I'm talking about offensive rebounding and free throw rate. Now, the latter may make some people quick to blame the fellas in stripes. After all, this is a conference that will apparently go to the death defending what was clearly a blown call in the WSU/Oregon game. However, I wouldn't fault the refs in this one: Bud Nameck, a man who will openly challenge calls over the air when he deems it appropriate, wasn't too up in arms about foul calls in the second half. Furthermore, Vince Grippi felt the game changed as the Cardinal became more aggressive in the second half. Ken Bone said the equivalent of "Don't blame the refs" in the postgame.
So don't blame the zebras for the fact the Cougars struggled so mightily to do something as simple as getting in the bonus. This was the Cougs chickening out of contact and settling for jumpers instead of free throw opportunities. WSU posted their worst free throw rate - by far - this entire season (18.2). It came at the worst possible time, and allowed Stanford to hammer us at the line by the time the final buzzer sounded.
This really is the one area where one can place blame on Ken Bone. He can't make the team shoot or rebound better; but he can drill in their heads they need to be more aggressive and earn fouls. So Bone bashers, at least in my opinion, get a pass here.
A bigger issue, though, was the offensive rebounding. The percentage of available boards the Cougs pull down from the offensive glass actually has a significant correlation to our overall offensive efficiency. Again, last night was an inopportune time to have our worst performance of the season (17.7%). This against a Stanford team that is very shallow in the middle, but still manages to protect the defensive glass. Very well, in fact: they are 71st in the nation in defending OR%, which should have been a giant red flag to us before the game. (What shouldn't have been a red flag: Stanford's home/road record, even though I tweeted it and the trend ultimately held true) But that's really the only thing Stanford does well on D, and we should've attacked the soft interior shooting defense instead of settling for jumpers and banking on our usually strong rebounding.
All these things together lead me to the same conclusion: We were lucky to only lose by two. Seriously, if Stanford had just done their average job of avoiding turnovers, they could've kept it close in the first half and run away in the second. It doesn't matter that we are the better team on paper; last night the Cougars played a bad, bad, basketball game, especially in areas we normally excel at.
And there you have it. Now I can move on, perhaps with the purchase of a $3.99 chicken strip basket from Dairy Queen. Hey, if I see an opportunity to get value out of the market, I'll take it. I'm like Jack Z up in here.