Merry New Year Cougar Nation and Brinkhater Army.
Hope you all have recovered from your merriment and are ready for the primary slate of Cougar Hoops 2009.
As I noted here on this blog a couple of weeks back, I thought that the twin bill of purple and gold (LSU and the Defeateds) represented our first set of "must win" games of this season.
While I could have been wrong about the former, there is little doubt in me brain
that IF WE HARBOR ANY SERIOUS NCAA TOURNEY AMBITIONS we must win Saturday's game.
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on what I think MUST happen for us to make the dance, what I think will happpen, and a quick prediction on the conference.
WHAT MUST HAPPEN
Folks, in my view the way that the conference schedule shapes up does NOT favor this team and its development. Simply put, I think that if this team had a favorable second half schedule, I would be MUCH more optimistic about this team's prospects for the upcoming season.
On the bright side, we are now entering conference play at 8-4 having played about as bad as we can play. Think about it: only Baynes and Thompson should receive high marks for their pre-season play, while the others (with maybe Forrest as an exception) all should get C's or below. So, in my book, if you take where we are as "as bad as it gets" then you get the 8th place Pac-10 team that I think we are right now.
So, back to the schedule.
In my book, the next five games are key. If we want to be on that bubble, we need to be 4-1 in the first five if not 5-0. So, we need to beat UW, sweep the Bay Area and split the Oregons, or split the Bay Area and sweep the Oregons.
Then, you have the LA schools at home followed by the roady to the Arizona schools. Split those puppies and you have a 6-3 first half which is a MUST for us. Why?
Check out the second half schedule: @Defeateds, @The Bay Area, @LA-LA land. That means that only the Oregon schools and the two AZ schools are at home in the second half. So, if you sweep Oregon at home, split at the Bay, split the AZs at home, you get a 4-5 split that puts us at 10-8. Then you're a conference tourney game from the Dance.
From my perspective, that is the ONLY chance that we have.
There have been several articles written in the papers and on other blogs citing differences between this year's team and last year's. In my book, the differences are plain and simple:
1) This year's team does not CREATE turnovers at the defensive end. As a result, this team has no current ability to score points in transition which makes us extremely vulnerable if we're not right in the half-court.
2) This year's team is a better half-court offensive team than last year's. However, that potential is obscured because of the lack of points generated in transition and our puzzling unwillingness to establish Baynes and his 63% field goal percentage early, mid, late, and often in games.
This team will meet last year's conference record IF it can better establish Baynes in the left block early, IF Taylor can look to distribute first and take care of the damn ball, and if Klay Thompson and Baynes both put it up 15 times a game. The more those two shoot, the better. Taylor, meanwhile, needs to get his 10 or 11 a game from making 6 free throws in the final minutes. He MUST focus on distributing first. And, Nick MUST find his role as a spot energy guy. IF T-Bone makes him something else, then its a long, long year for us.
Right now, this team is a 6-12 group which is 8th in the conference. If things go right in the next three weeks, this team could also be a 12-6 group which would be 3rd. That makes me think that 9-9 is probably squarely in the cards. That spells NIT and 8th place in what will be a VERY middle heavy conference.
Arizona is the only team that I think we CAN NOT and WILL NOT beat in the conference. While I don't think we'll beat UCLA, I think that we could as they have not beaten ANYONE of consequence so far and lack a low-post threat that can stop Baynes if he's used and on his "A" game.
The fate of the Bay Area schools will be known in the next two weeks as they open with the Arizonas and then have to travel North to play us and the Defeateds. I think both of those schools are also mid-tier teams which makes the first two weeks for both them and the Washingtons all the more crucial.
While I like UCLA as a top-two team, I'm not ready to crown them outright like everyone else. I also HATE USC right now. While they have the athleticism for their customary upsets of USC and Arizona, they still lack too much D to command a top 3 finish. And I don't think they make the Dance.
Meanwhile, ASU still plays down to their competition and are EXTREMELY vulnerable to problems if Harden gets hurt or is in foul trouble, and AZ still shows much inconsistency for a group that is so darn talented. Neither Oregon school can contend.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Arizona Call me cwazy, but in an open year, this is my pick to win the conference at 13-5. A lot of balance, a lot of athleticism, and a nice edge.
2. UCLA. This is a co-championship because I also think that UCLA goes 13-5. There's a lot of strengths here to be sure, but there's also enough weakness coupled with a lot of teams in the Pac (USC, both AZs, both Washington Schools, and both Bay Area schools) that could conceivably split with them.
3. Arizona State. This team COULD be a dangerous tournament match-up but they remind me a lot of a counterpoint to last year's SC team: One great player. That means a few W's that coulda been L's as well as a few headscrather L's (see ASU's one point win against Indiana University-Purdue-Indianapolis an example)
4. Washington. They fall to 8th in my book depending on what happens in THEIR first three games. But, a win against us sets them up for two HUGE home games. They too are shooting for a 4-1 start. My sense is that they get it, while we don't.
5. CAL. I'll eat my hat if they don't get fifth. CAL is a 10-8 team if I've ever seen one.
6. USC. I'll eat my hat if they finish above fifth. This is a 10-8 team if I've ever seen one.
7. Stanford. See-saw, see-saw. Can they make the tourney going 9-9 after an undefeated start? They'll have to win a couple in the Pac-10 tournament. Goods and Hill are great, but they aren't that much better than other wings to make up for spotty PG play and no post presence.
8. WSU. Like I said, 9-9. But, with a lot of potential to switch with the Puppies. That's how important tomorrow's game is.
9. Oregon. Very long year for Kent's crew.
10. OSU. Mr. Robinson will build this program over the coming years. But if you think our offense looks bad at times, check out what they've got.
The proverbial "we" will be back tomorrow with a quick prediction and another irrelevant game thread.