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Is it 2006 all over again?

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As we hit the offseason for Cougar basketball, I can't help but continue to notice some odd similarities between last season's Cougar team, and another WSU team that finished last in the conference. Don't believe me? Here are some comparisons in handy chart form:


2006
2010
Conference Record
4-15
6-13
Conference Finish
10th
10th
Record in last 10 games
2-8
2-8
Eliminated from Pac-10 tournament by
Oregon
Oregon
Kenpom Rank
94th
122nd
Seniors
1
1
Contributing Freshmen and Sophomores*
8
12
Key Postseason Transfer
G Josh Akognon
G Xavier Thames
Key Sophomores
Low, Weaver, Cowgill
Thompson, Casto, Capers
Roster strength
Depth at guard
Depth at guard
Roster weakness
Lack of depth in frontcourt
Lack of depth in frontcourt
Chance for a statement win the following season
At home vs. Gonzaga
At home vs. Gonzaga
Following season result
2nd round NCAA Tournament
???

 

*-'Contributing' meaning appearances in ten or more games

There you have it. Two teams with almost identical paths to disappointing seasons. Both struggled mightily down the stretch. Both finished tenth in the Pac-10. Both had similar roster compositions, and both lost a key guard to an off-season transfer. Both had only one senior (Randy Green, Nik Koprivica). The 2010 Cougars won more games; the 2006 Cougars should have won more if you believe in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Both teams were extremely young and led primarily by sophomores. They both had a bazillion question marks heading into the offseason. However, they also had a chance to erase some of those early in the next season with a key home game against a favored, but vulnerable, Gonzaga team.

Read on for more, and why a jump to the Dance may not be so far-fetched for next fall's Cougar team...

In the interest of fairness, though, we should discuss the differences between these two teams. While the season results were similar, the in-game strengths and weaknesses were very different. One rather obvious discrepancy lies within the offense. That 2006 team was horrendous offensively. So bad they finished 256th (!) in the nation in offensive efficiency. They had only one player post an above-average (100) Rating: Josh Akognon, at 100.8, who left the following summer. In fact, a good comparison to this would be this year's USC team, which finished the year ranked 252nd, but was able to win some games on defense alone. It speaks volumes about the weakness of the Pac-10 this year that the Trojans somehow found their way to the middle of the conference standings. Meanwhile, this year's Cougars were more than competent in offense, finishing 105th, and really only faltering in one area: turnover rate. The 2006 Cougars were awful in all four offensive factors. The 2010 Cougars? Had seven players with above average O-ratings.

Now, let's talk defense. Once again, I can't help but reflect on this season's USC team, which finished second nationally in defensive efficiency. The 2006 Cougars weren't much worse, finishing seventh. That team excelled at one thing, which happens to be the most important thing on D: keeping shots out of the basket. They were second best nationally at defending the three (odd for a Bennett system that takes away the interior first), and 20th at defending two-point shots. They blocked shots. They got back quickly to eliminate fast break opportunities. Meanwhile, this year's WSU team struggled to find their defensive identity: mixing it up between man and zone, losing battles in isolation and giving up transition baskets. The current Cougars struggle mightily at the most important thing: they were 272nd in effective field goal percentage defense. You want to know why this current team didn't win more games? The Cougs gave up far too many open shots.

So, now, the paths diverge. The Cougars, in 2006, after Dick Bennett's final year, only needed to get better on offense. They had defense down to a science. However, they also needed to get a lot better on offense to succeed. The fact Tony Bennett's first WSU squad jumped all the way up to 54th nationally on offensive efficiency is nothing short of mind-boggling. The biggest impact came from Derrick Low's new found ability to shoot the lights out. But another key component, under the radar, was the emergence of Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baynes. The team also had a power forward in Ivory Clark that could draw some comparisons to our current one, DeAngelo Casto. Kyle Weaver emerged as a jack of all trades, and the team as a whole avoided turnovers like the plague. Better shot selection led the Cougars to a dramatic increase in shooting percentage. Tony Bennett turned on the faucet just a little bit - and the offense game gushing out. The result was a season that changed everything in how we view Cougar basketball.

In many ways, the 2010-11 Cougars road to success is less improbable than Tony Bennett's first team - the one that made a miraculous improvement on offense. The Cougars don't need to make leaps and bounds on either end of the floor; they simply need to make a marked improvement. Our current team isn't actually much worse than the 2007 tourney Cougs in three of the four defensive factors: turnover rate, offensive rebound prevention and free throw rate defense. Where they are worse, obviously, is in the most important area, shooting defense. This can be improved, though, simply by better on ball defense by players and better awareness of their opponents' sets. Team defense will also improve as the players get used to Bone's system, and learn each others' tendencies. Remember that youth also hurts in the sense that our guys have only been playing together for a year or two at most. An improvement in defense is very probable: the Cougs improved their defensive efficiency already against 7 of the 9 conference foes they played in the second half of the Pac-10 season. (You probably just didn't notice because the Cougs fell apart on offense) Keep shots out of the net next year, and the Cougs could make a dramatic improvement on D.

As for the offense, we know the potential for greatness is there. Heck, we saw it in action during the first half of the season, albeit against weaker opposition. Down the stretch, however, every single one of us know what killed the Cougs: turnovers and missed shots. You don't even need advanced stats to show you that. It's pretty safe to assume WSU will be able to protect the ball better next fall: those of us lamenting the loss of Xavier Thames might be well-served to note he had the exact same turnover rate (19.1) as Klay Thompson. Everyone on the roster should be more experienced with the higher-tempo offense next year and should (emphasis on should) keep the ball away from the other team. Meanwhile, with Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore taking a high percentage of shots, all it took was a slump by both to sink the Cougars' overall shooting percentage. Wouldn't it be safe to assume both should improve offensively next season? Take better shots? Make more shots? The only real concern here is how to replace Nikola Koprivica's three-point shooting impact. That's something that definitely remains up in the air, but could be solved by a combination of Faisel Aden's arrival and Klay Thompson rounding back into form.

We still don't know what the rest of the summer holds. There may yet be more transfers, and more question marks arising. Injuries are always a possibility (knock on wood). And what Ken Bone chooses to do with the newly opened scholarships will play a vital role in how this team performs next season and beyond.

However, I will say this: the chances of the 2011 Cougars making the tournament already seem much greater than the 2007 Cougars' chances, at least at this juncture in the early offseason.

Next season's team doesn't need an offensive miracle to make the Big Dance; they just simply need to get better.