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2011 NIT, WSU Vs. Northwestern: Thoughts, Charts And Video

Last night was a lot of fun. But one of the annoying things in the aftermath was Mike Salk of 710-AM's "Brock and Salk" show ribbing Cougar fans on Twitter for getting excited over last night's win -- "More meaningless result: NIT game or spring training game?" and "Wait, are the Coug fans waiving one finger in the air like they're number 1? This is still the NIT, right? Not Invited Tournament..." and "Getting excited for also-ran status is lame."

Of course, we all let him have it.

I don't want to pick on Salk too much, because I actually rather like him as a sports radio host (which, believe me, is saying something). It's just that I hear this junk all the time -- that somehow fans shouldn't be excited when their team does well in the NIT because it's not the NCAA Tournament.

I'm probably going to sound a bit like an old man when I say this, but this sort of condescension is one of things I hate most about our culture right now. Why is someone having fun grounds to mock them? Why does it matter to you if we rush the court after beating our rival? Why does it matter to you if we think it's pretty cool that our team is still playing basketball right now?

I didn't mock UW fans when they celebrated their 6-6 season as if they'd just won the Pac-10 championship. Good for them. For whatever reason, that accomplishment meant a lot to them. And while I'm not yet sure how much this accomplishment actually means to us, I know I'm having fun. Because winning is fun. Seeing your team strive for excellence and achieve favorable results is fun. It's what sports is all about, even if it's not at the highest possible level.

And if there was any question in your mind whether this means anything to the coaches and players, anyone who watched the postgame interviews on ESPN with Ken Bone and Klay Thompson could hardly have missed it in their faces. Bone was openly smiling, and for all the crap Thompson takes about being an emotionless robot on the floor, he was practically beaming as he stood with investigative journalist Stephen Bardo. Both were genuinely excited and enjoying the moment.

Isn't that what sports are all about?

As for the game itself, well, it's amazing to me how much of a microcosm of the season this NIT is becoming (save for the losing part).

These guys have stretches of absolute brilliance -- like in the first half, when they absolutely shredded Northwestern's defense to the tune of 1.25 points per possession. They did it with the kind of ball movement we've only seen in spurts most of the year; the last time I remember that kind of extended execution was against Baylor, to be honest. 

And the defense? Really good against that vaunted Princeton offense of Bill Carmody. Even with the little spurt at the end of the half, they only put up 1.02 ppp -- this from the 15th-rated offense in the country by adjusted efficiency. That was thanks in large part to the Wildcats only shooting 48.5 eFG%,  about 5 percent below their season mark. And that was largely on the Cougs, who did a great job disrupting what Northwestern wanted to do.

But as is generally the case with this team, it couldn't last for 40 minutes. The sharing of the ball that was so successful early started to wane as the half wound down. The offense that made the Northwestern defense look like a JV squad for the first 20 minutes could only manage .81 ppp in the second half on 36.5 eFG%. It was classic pound-and-chuck Cougar basketball, and it was ugly.

I'm sure Northwestern deserves some credit, and maybe this doesn't seem like such a big deal if Thompson shoots somewhat normally. But I've seen this story enough times this year to know when we're being our own worst enemy. And we were in the second half last night.

One oddity about last night? Northwestern's efficiency in the second half was identical to the first half. As has been the case for most of the year, the only reason this game was close was because the WSU offense completely went in the crapper. 

I've mentioned this to a few of my friends, but if there's anything this team has proven to me in this NIT run, it's that they are exactly where they belong. When I watch the NCAA Tournament, I honestly don't think we belong there. Too inconsistent, due mostly to a lack of discipline that can't be made up for by superlative talent. 

But in the NIT? It's good enough to beat other similarly inconsistent/not-quite-talented-enough teams, and there's value in doing so. Be honest: Did you expect this team to make this run? Or did you fully expect them to crap themselves at some point? That the Cougs have won three consecutive games -- something they haven't done since late December -- represents substantial progress.

It also excites me for the possibilities of next year. Sometimes when guys get older, things just click. When this team is playing smart, disciplined basketball, it's very good. Perhaps one more year -- with the additions of Michael Ladd, DaVonte Lacy and Greg Sequele -- will make that happen for these guys. Worked for this team

Before we get onto the charts and the postgame video, here's Thompson's dunk, one more time for posterity. It's No. 7 ...