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Where Has The Offense Gone ... Part Three

I kept the title for continuity in the series (earlier stories found here and here), but I think it's safe to say that the WSU offense is no longer missing -- not after the Cougs put up 1.04 points per possession against the best defense in the Pac-10, which to this point is the third-highest mark of the season against Washington.

Try as some fans of a certain team might to just put this all on a poor effort by UW, those of us who have been watching this team all year know differently: This was WSU finally putting together the total team effort on offense we've been waiting for all year.

I mentioned in the second part of this series that WSU was 10-1 in games in which it had assisted on 50 percent or more of its made baskets. Well, make that 11-1 -- the Cougs assisted on 60 percent of their baskets in this game, and it was obvious watching the game that it was a huge factor. Time after time, Reggie Moore*, Klay Thompson and even Faisal Aden drew defenders to them and made the extra pass. 

*There obviously was more to Moore's performance than just passing, and I'm eventually going to touch on it in a separate post. For now, I just want to stick with the assists.

Before I get to what this might mean going forward, I want to take a moment to praise Aden -- partly because I've been kind of rough on the kid, but also because I think he's a huge key to this going forward.

Aden was simply masterful in this game, and a huge part of the reason WSU was able to weather the foul trouble of Thompson and DeAngelo Casto. A year ago, this team would have folded up. Some would say it would have been because they were mentally soft; I simply would have said they lacked the talent past the "big three" to compete against a team of the quality of Washington.

That is simply not the case anymore. On a certain level, I really think UW sort of relaxed after the foul trouble hit, because they assumed the Cougs just wouldn't be able to keep up. But when Aden is playing like that -- 15 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block -- there still is significant talent on the floor.

Case in point: Did any of you notice, during the course of the game, that Aden was 6-of-17? Me either. Not once did I think, "Dang, Aden really needs to stop shooting!"* I think there are a few simple reasons. First, when you shoot 3-of-6 from 3, that will make up for a lot. Second, most every shot Aden took was within the flow of the offense. And third -- and most importantly -- it wasn't the sort of vacant 6-of-17 we've seen too often this year. You know, the kind where he scores in double digits but has like 1 rebound, 1 assists and a steal or two. The kind that just destroys the offense.

*I also did not think any other less flattering thoughts that I may or may not have expressed at various times on this site. Honest. 

Aden was the opposite of that on Sunday. Just like a lot of things in basketball, sharing (or not sharing) is contagious. Aden's assists weren't cheapies -- they were legitimate draw-and-find-the-open-guy assists, and I believe three of them resulted in dunks. That kind of stuff is huge for the morale of the entire team. Too often this year, we've seen guys just stand around and watch Aden because, hey, why should I cut to the basket when all he's going to do is jack up a shot? Guys now know that if they make a cut, they're going to get the ball. That's enormous.

And this probably isn't a fluke, either: Over the last three games, he's had four, four and two assists. The last two games? Eight assists in 43 minutes. Think about that for a second.

This turnaround in Aden is one of the reasons I'm actually pretty excited about this offense going forward. When I looked at the team's overall trend in assist percentage before Sunday, I saw a lot of inconsistency. But after doing what we did to an excellent defense -- one that typically only allows assists on 44 percent of its opponent's makes -- I think it's now rather clear that this team is trending in another direction.

Here's the team's offensive efficiency (point per possession; remember, 1.0 is average) and assist percentage all the way back to Mississippi State:

Mississippi State 71 1.17 32.3
Baylor 64 1.20 53.6
Butler 71 0.96 41.7
at UCLA 72 0.99 48
at USC 61 0.92 22.7
Oregon State 75 1.12 69.2
Oregon 71 1.08 66.7
at Cal 76 1.07 41.4
at Stanford 65 0.94 39.1
Arizona State 65 1.20 63.3
Arizona 67 0.94 80
Washington 83 1.05 60

The three exceptions here where assist percentage doesn't seem to correlate with efficiency are Mississippi State, Cal and Arizona. Hot shooting was largely responsible for the first two; cold shooting for the third.

But look at the other games. We can be guilty with statistics of setting pretty arbitrary lines in the sand when it pleases us, but it's not totally preposterous in hindsight to think that Butler, UCLA and USC actually did have something to do with road legs, as the team looked as if it didn't want to expend the effort to get open away from the ball. If you look at what's happened since those games -- which now are a rather long time ago -- this team actually has shared the ball well, and that's been at least partly responsible for the overall offensive efficiency. 

Before Sunday, I was looking at this chart as a 50/50 proposition as to whether we're going to share the ball on any given night. Another bad night against UW of trying to beat people one-on-one and I would have seen a team that just doesn't possess the will or ability to execute against an elite defense. Now, after the team exceeding 60 in assist percentage five times in the last seven games, I see a team that just might have figured it out a little bit. 

Want even more good news? This is tremendously positive heading into a road trip to Oregon. Both are teams we should beat, and the best way to beat them is by passing the ball. Oregon will press you full court, Oregon State runs a trapping zone. We beat them both the first time around with passing; we'll need to do the same this weekend.

Honestly, I'm actually trying to contain my excitement a little bit. Because, really, if this team is now going to share the ball like this the rest of the way, they're are a serious contender for a second-place finish and a lock for putting together a resume that will get them into the NCAA Tournament.

That my friends, is pretty cool.