What's wrong with the Cougars? There are a lot of different directions we could go with that question. When a team goes on a three-game losing streak, it's rarely one thing that's going sideways. In fact, it's usually a lot of things. But WSU is sort of odd in this; when you look at the Four Factors in this streak, there's really not that much going wrong.
Basically, compared to earlier in the year, they've shot poorly, failed to defend shooting and failed to force turnovers. Everything else has actually been more or less in line with what the team was doing early in the season. (In some cases, as in defensive rebounding, it's actually been markedly better.)
Now, one could argue -- as Grady has -- that we shouldn't be looking at how to merely get back to what we were doing early in the season, at least on offense, given our continuing deficiencies in offensive rebounding and free throw rate. And I can certainly appreciate that school of thought. However, I think there's also a valid school of thought that was spoken thusly by a great 20th Century philosopher:
"I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam."
On some level, I think hoping and wishing for this team to be something different than what it is is just asking for disappointment, because it's likely not something you're not going to get. Sure, the free throw rate might improve marginally as Reggie Moore gets healthier. And maybe playing Brock Motum more marginally improves the offensive rebounding. But I don't think there's a strategy or rotation tweak that's going to improve either of those significantly.
At some point, you just sort of have to embrace what you are: A jump shooting team. Of course it's not all they can do, but it's what they do best, so it's where their bread is going to be buttered, for better or for worse. Because of that, I feel like the focus should be more on how to maximize what we do well.
There are a lot of directions we could go with this, but I'll just pick one, because this team isn't in need of sweeping changes -- subtle ones should do the trick. So here's my two cents.
Faisal Aden needs to shoot less. A LOT LESS.
How much does Aden shoot right now? Out of 1,500 or so regular contributors to Division I basketball teams, Aden is No. 15 -- 15! -- in the percentage of his team's shots he takes when he's on the floor: 34.5. That's also No. 2 in the Pac-10. No. 3 is Klay Thompson -- 31.7.
See anything wrong with this picture?
It's not so much the volume of shots Aden is taking; it's the kinds of shots he's taking. One thing about that shot percentage is that it's virtually impossible to post that high of a mark within the normal flow of an offense. To do that, a player has to be a creator. Aden certainly is that -- he possesses an array of savvy moves to shake defenders in one-on-one situations.
The problem, though, is this: Aden's almost exclusively a jump shooter. And it's really, really hard for a jump shooter -- who's shooting that many shots -- to be an efficient scorer, no matter how good of a shooter he is. Think of any great shooter in college you want who you remember scoring a lot of points, and I'll show you a shooter who either A) Actually got to the free throw line a lot more than you thought, or B) Didn't shoot the volume of shots Aden does.
Now, Aden is a great shooter ... but not as good as what he showed earlier this year, because, frankly, nobody is. He was shooting 50 percent from 3 and 60 percent from inside the arc. Neither of those marks are sustainable for a jump shooting guard who rarely draws fouls, yet, in our early season euphoria, we allowed ourselves to believe that was at least somewhat close to Aden's true talent level. We conveniently ignored the fact that this is a guy who shot 32 percent from 3-point range in junior college last year. That 3-point percentage has now dipped under 40 percent, and the 2-point percentage is now under 55.
Regression, as they say, is a b-word.
There also are side effects of Aden's style that are a bit more subtle. Aden's what we basketball players like to refer to as a "black hole" -- the ball goes in, and it doesn't come out. It's a fact that's not lost on anyone on the floor.
Aden's teammates know the ball is going up to the rim, so at this point, they generally just stand around while Aden does his thing. It's not laziness; it's just that basketball players aren't stupid, so they're not going to work hard to get in position for a ball they know is never coming. Defenses, on the other hand, know the ball is going to the rim, so they sag off their man to clean up a potential miss.
Essentially, when Aden touches the ball, a shot is going up, and it's either going in or it's going to be rebounded by the defense. Those are the sorts of all or nothing propositions most offenses try to avoid, yet the Cougs are facing that on more than 3 of 10 possessions when Aden is on the floor. That's great if he's on fire. But if he's not ... well, you see the damage it does to the team's overall offensive efficiency.
Since this is a piece proposing solutions, the solution with Aden is fairly simple. He needs to understand that his skill set doesn't lend itself to efficient scoring at the Pac-10 level and do a better job of selecting higher percentage shots. Because I actually think his true talent level is somewhat close to what he was showing earlier this year, as that's just far too long of a sustained level of excellence for it not to be, this adjustment alone will make the Cougs' attack that much more potent because Aden should be able to get back to making a good percentage of his shots.
Does this mean Aden needs to become exclusively a catch-and-shoot guy? No -- he's proven he can do more than that. There's nothing wrong with him going one-on-one at times, shooting those crazy pull-up jumpers that he has a knack for making. But that overall shot percentage needs to be closer to 25 than 35 by simply eliminating most of the one-on-one jump shots that seem to be so forced right now. When he's shooting 35 percent of the shots, he has the ability to shoot WSU right out of games as he did against Kansas State, Butler and USC.
I know that scares the pants off of fans to advocate for a strategy that encourages the team to keep shooting jump shots -- relying on jump shooting means you're just one poor shooting game away from losing to an overmatched opponent, or being bounced from whatever postseason tournament you might make. But this team is what it is, and convincing Aden that allowing the offense to come to him is the best way for him to help the team will go a long way toward helping the Cougars meet their goals.