On the heels of yet another frustrating pair of games — an epic collapse against Stanford and a solid-if-unspectacular win over Cal — I can say that when it comes to the Washington State Cougars men’s basketball team, two things can be true at the same time: They are every bit as talented as we thought they were, and also they’re not as good as we hoped they would be.
One is a statement of ability as measured by what they can do. The other is a statement of quality as measured by actual outcomes. And they’re not mutually exclusive.
The Cougars — now a middling 10-7 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12 — have ability that oozes all over the floor as they dispatch the Utahs and the Cals of the world while building sizable leads against a slew of other opponents. I understand the temptation to downplay their ability in the context of 40-minute results, but I’d ask you to consider how often you saw the Cougs regularly outplay opponents for long stretches under Ken Bone (at the end, anyway) or Ernie Kent. It doesn’t bring a lot of comfort, but to blow a double-digit lead, you have to be talented enough to build a double-digit lead in the first place.
Alas, games are 40 minutes long, and the team’s quality becomes evident as it continually struggles to get through all of those minutes with more points than the other team. And that’s pretty problematic when results are how we ultimately measure everyone.
That type of disconnect, between ability and accomplishment, is maddening for all parties involved — players, coaches, fans — because it feels like the sort of thing that should be solvable by someone. If the players just play a little better, if the coaches just coach a little smarter, if the fans just fan a little harder ... then the talent finally will win the day, as everyone thinks it should.
But sports are funny like that! Talent doesn’t always win out, which is why nobody truly can let go of the concept of “chemistry” despite our inability to measure it alongside the other truckloads of data we now rely on to inform our thinking, strategizing, and decision making in sports. Intangibles do exist.
The hard part, of course, is figuring out which of those intangibles is to blame for any team’s disconnect between ability and results, and whether any of them can even be corrected, anyway — for example, you can’t coach a team into being more mature or experienced.
Coug Twitter has thrown around a lot of ideas about what this team lacks — I won’t recount them all here, and some of them are pretty obviously pejorative — but even Kyle Smith has lamented his team’s toughness in variety of ways after losses; following Stanford, Smith said, “We got punched, and we gotta punch back.”
We all can see that the team struggles to stem the tide when things start going south on them, but I’m not sure I agree with Smith the team doesn’t punch back. I’m not close enough to the team to feel like I can make definitive statements on that front, but when I think of a team that doesn’t punch back, I think of people standing around, waiting for someone else to do something. This team seems to me to do quite the opposite.
On offense, a succession of players takes it upon themselves to initiate increasingly outlandish shots outside of the structure of the offense in an effort to try and get the team back on track; on defense, individuals play outside their responsibility in an effort to be the one to make a play to disrupt the opponent. These feel like good ideas to the players, whose hearts assuredly are in the right place, but they actually are terrible ideas, as they diminish the probability of a positive result, leading to this snowball effect that seems damn near impossible to reverse.
I don’t believe in “momentum” in the way it’s typically described by announcers or coaches; it’s been used to describe so many different phenomena that it’s become devoid of all reliable meaning. But I do believe there absolutely is a mental aspect to games that can make it feel like one positive result is leading to another one — or, as is so often the case for WSU, vice versa. That’s how Mike Leach described it when he was interviewed by ESPN.com’s David Hale in his excellent investigation of “momentum.”
Leach described WSU’s epic 2019 collapse against UCLA as a product of “negative momentum, I suppose,” before going on to say “negative momentum” is “when, collectively, a group gets frustrated and it just disintegrates and doesn’t play within the range of what they’re capable of.”
That passes the smell test to me. The big question, of course, is how you combat that frustration to stave off the disintegration, and something else Leach said about that (found here at about the 33-minute mark) really stuck out to me.
“You have to have precise preparation, drilled as specifically as you possibly can, over and over,” Leach said. “And then when they hit rough times, they fall back on their training. And the better their training is, the more they have to fall back on.”
That Leach would say that is completely unsurprising, given his obsession with execution. But as Hale says, psychology experts back Leach up on that point, even if they question how easy it is for players to do that as they get increasingly frustrated.
Which leads me back to the basketball team: They don’t seem to have anything that they fall back on when things start spiraling. They don’t appear to have bread and butter plays on offense that they know they can execute flawlessly with a variety of counters to get a good look; they don’t appear to dig in with their sound defensive principles to get a string of stops until the offense comes around.
They do punch back, but they flail — and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to argue that flailing isn’t much different than not punching back at all, in terms of effectiveness.
Exactly why it is that the Cougs aren’t able to fall back on their training and execute in the dark moments, I don’t feel qualified enough to say definitively.
Maybe it’s legitimately one of those pejoratives that people like to throw around on Twitter, like “soft.” But maybe it’s something else.
Perhaps it’s a product of the team’s fragmented practice regimen, which has been fractured by Covid and injuries for the majority of the season; when people are constantly in and out of practice, it’s hard to train, and when it’s hard to train, it’s hard to execute — particularly for a group that’s as young as this one still is.
Perhaps it’s the cost of integrating a pair of new ball-dominant guards; that can make it hard for everyone to be on the same page from the jump.
Perhaps this group simply lacks someone with the gravitas to snap everyone back in line when they start to deviate from the plan; without someone to command and orchestrate, people end up doing what they think is best, rather than what actually is best.
Perhaps this is just an inevitable vagary of a team that still ranks 275th nationally in kenpom’s experience metric; you might remember another inexperienced team that had a bunch of talent and lost a bunch of close games.
If it’s one of those things I mentioned, it’s probably not going to get appreciably better this season and this is just who they are. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be a fun and successful season; even if all the things in the preceding paragraphs are true, this team really just needs a little bit of good luck to come its way for the results to come back around a bit.
And who knows? Maybe putting Cal away after the Golden Bears closed to just a bucket in the closing minutes is the turning point this team has desperately needed. I’m going to need a bit more evidence in that direction before I buy into that, but it’s certainly possible.
Who impressed: Andrej Jakimovski and Mouhamed Gueye
We’re all plenty familiar with Andrej Jakimovski the 3-point sharpshooter, but it was Andrej the defender and rebounder who was especially impactful last weekend.
Jakimovski was pressed into heavy duty when DJ Rodman was unavailable for either game because of Covid concerns. He was ineffective against Stanford (just like almost everyone else), but against Cal, he was absolute nails: 16 points (including 4-of-7 from 3-point range) with 7 rebounds (2 offensive) and just 1 turnover in 29 minutes. He punished Cal repeatedly from behind the line and was a force on the boards, where his rebound total doesn’t account for a least three other rebounds that landed in a teammate’s grasp after he got a hand to the ball.
The consistency still isn’t there for Jakimovski, but he’s flashing the kind of all-around game that can make him a force in the context of a given game. The deadeye shooting we saw at times last year has become entrenched, as he’s now shooting 46% on 44 attempts. More encouraging than that, even, is that he’s making 50% of his 2s, finally finishing a good amount of the drives that ended so painfully last season. And his offensive rebounding has soared to 8% of the Cougs’ misses.
With Rodman’s availability uncertain for this weekend, Jakimovski will get a chance to do it all again. The Cougs will need him.
Mouhamed Gueye also had a big weekend. The toolsy 6-11 freshman is asserting himself more and more, and his performance in these games — 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2 blocks — led to him being named the conference’s freshman of the week.
Gueye is both benefiting from the guards figuring out ways to get him the ball regularly in scoring spots but also gaining invaluable experience that is allowing him to exert his considerable athletic ability on the game. He’s already a superlative rebounder and rim protector, and if he ever gets his jumper straightened out — he seems to have a thing where the ball doesn’t always come off his fingertips, causing him to steer his shot — he’ll terrify opponents. He might already be doing that, even without the jumper.
Up next: Oregons
Another weekend, another opportunity.
The Oregon Ducks are up first on Thursday, and they will give WSU a shot at something we didn’t anticipate: A Quadrant 1 win for the NCAA tournament committee. “But I thought Oregon was disappointing this year?” On the whole, yes, but the Ducks just got done beating UCLA and USC on the road (in front of zero fans, but the NET ranking doesn’t care about that), causing them to rise to 60 in the NET.
Just like WSU, Oregon’s hopes for an NCAA tournament aren’t dead, but they’re certainly mostly dead, and both teams are going to view this as an important chance to make a statement.
Then, it’s the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday. They really do stink. The Cougars should win. That’s all I’m going to say about that.