Nothing To Lose

So the team in SI.com’s “bubble watch” (again they pegged UCLA as a team that “should be in” and got sensitive and hilariously inconsistent after getting called out on it) pulled out a hard fought win in one of the toughest venues in West Coast, running up their record to 15-3, 5-1 in Pacific 10 Conference play. Every year Bruins go up to Pullman, I get the feeling in my stomach that the law of averages will finally catch up with us resulting in WSU students rushing the Friel court. Somehow, some what the Ben Ball warriors pulled out another win last night against a determined and tenacious opponent that gave everything they had to pull off a season defining upset (guess everyone looks for that against UCLA).

I want to highlight the positives first before discussing some lingering concerns heading into our next game. I think given what we have seen in last two games, we are going to be underdogs against the Huskies (who are tied for the conference lead with UCLA) Saturday in Seattle, where we haven’t won since 2004. I think we will be in a situation in which we will have nothing to lose (which I will expand on below). But as I wrote above, let’s start with the good stuff. There is no doubt who was the hero bailing us out from back to back possible disasters:

So, after UCLA wasted all of a 15-point second-half lead, Collison took over and scored six points in the final five minutes as 13th-ranked UCLA survived a late Washington State rally to win 61-59 Thursday in front of 8,434 at Friel Court.

"We didn't want that feeling of the Arizona State loss to happen again, so we had to show a little bit more toughness," said Collison, who had eight points, six assists and no turnovers. "I thought we played a good team. We just started losing a little bit of focus down the stretch in the last five minutes, and that can't happen.

"But I thought we played with more toughness than we did in the Arizona State game.

There is no doubt the toughness of DC. He put the team on his shoulders during those final mins when we were in a crisis mode:

"We have a play we call `clear' and it leaves the paint wide open," Collison said.

"Alfred set a big screen to help me get around the (center), and I tried to capitalize."
On the next possession Collison scored on a layup to give the Bruins the lead for good at 57-55, and he capped his own outburst with a pull-up 6-footer with 2:40 remaining to put the Bruins ahead 59-55.

"Darren really looked to be more aggressive, finally, at the end of the game and get to the basket," Howland said. "He knows by now, after four years, what he's supposed to do at the end of our games, and that's what he did."

DC ended the night with only 8 points mostly content with distributing the ball to his team-mates. He finished with 8 assists but possibly could have had more if his team didn’t blow some easy shots down low. The guy who was carrying the team in first half though was none other than ND, who is now starting to live up the hype of “Serbian Assassin.”  ND was unconscious in the first half dropping in one bomb after another helping UCLA get off to a 13 pt half time lead:

"I was setting screens and getting open shots," Dragovic said. "It was nice to get the shots. My teammates were getting me the ball, and I was able to knock them down."
Since beginning the season 8 of 39 (20.5 percent) from 3-point range, Dragovic is 17of 36 (47.2). He is averaging 14.5 points in four games since becoming the starting power forward.

Dragovic attempted five shots in the second half, and missed his three 3-point attempts.

It’s great to see ND taking those shots with confidence. He is also showing why Howland decided to start him over JK (who btw had a pretty decent game too) since the start of the Pac-10. However, I am also getting a little concerned about our reliance on being a perimeter shooting team, which leads me to bring up the lingering concerns heading into next game.

As mentioned ND had a huge night early on. He finished the night 6 for 10 from the 3 pt line. As a team we shot a healthy 56.3% from the 3 point line last night making 9 of 16 shots. However, I do think we cannot afford to get to reliant on our outside shooting. I think the trick is here to find the right balance. I don't want us to settle for jump shots. I understand that our shooters shouldn’t hesitate when they are getting open looks within the flow of our offense. I don’t have a problem with that. However, I’d like to see us be more aggressive in attacking inside.

What I am getting the sense is that when we get really hot from the outside we started depending on it a little too much, get passive, and don’t take advantage of the available athleticism in our guards to drive inside.  I'd like to see DC, JH and ML slash to the basket lot more and create their own shots as well or either get to the FT line. This way we can attack our opponents and inside and out relentlessly. In our last two games when our shooters were hot and draining 3s from all over the place, we stopped driving to the hoop in subsequent possessions and kept settling for jumpers.

I think just like football where a good offensive team is always striving for balance between their passing and running attacks, we need to strive for balance between our inside and outside game. It’s pretty clear we have some great shooters. I think the task at hand is when our shooters get hot, we should use that as opportunity to drive inside. We saw a little bit of that against Arizona when ND and MR were taking it to rack. We didn’t see much of that against ASU and not last night until DC started taking over late in the game. We will need that balance against a very talented Washington team tomorrow afternoon. Otherwise, if settle for one dimensional attack dependent on our outside shooting we are going to get buried in Seattle.

We will also get buried if we don’t show urgency in the department of rebounding. I thought our rebounding tenacity was woeful early. Washington State outrebounded us 28 to 21 (9 to 6 in offensive boards). That is not acceptable. Early on our guys were doing a horrific job in securing rebounds (which is emerging as a disconcerting theme last few games). AA2 finished the night with 1 rebound. JK led the team with 5 rebounds (in 11 mins) while DG finished with 4 (in 10 mins). Perhaps we will chalk it off as on off night for AA2 but we will need lot more from the President. Again we don’t need AA2 to give us KL like numbers. He just needs to hold his own. He did have 3 clutch jumpers and a mammoth block down the stretch playing his role in the big win. But we also need him to connect when he is getting point blank opportunities down low. Channeling Big Red: “Throw it down Big Man!”

Our FT shooting also bugged me all night. We made 6 of 10 shots. Ok, I don’t expect someone like DG to shoot like Larry Bird from the FT line. However, it doesn’t help when MR is shooting .500 from the FT line the entire season. That is not acceptable for a shooter of MR’s caliber.

I think the biggest concern I have right now about this team is our defense. Sure our offense froze up late in the game (until DC took control) leading to WSU’s ASU like rally last night. But it wasn’t our offense that was the issue. I think the biggest issue is we are not playing typical Ben Ball LOCKDOWN defense. From Coach Howland:

Washington State made 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) shots from the field in the second half after going 9 for 26 (34.6) in the first half.

"I thought what happened, the way they play with being so patient offensively eventually it wears you down," Howland said. "Our ball pressure wasn't nearly as good in the last 10 minutes as it was the first 10 minutes."

Coach Howland and his staff needs to figure out how to exactly sustain that lockdown defense during crunch time. In previous years it was AA, LRMAM and RW anchoring the suffocating defense we have all gotten used to in Westwood. This year we are not seeing that intensity.

It’s surprising to hear about our players getting gassed given the depth we have in our team. Again last night DG, ML, and JA played a grand total of 18 mins. I get Coach Howland going with his experienced seniors and upper classmen now that he has a talented core to work with (a luxury he didn’t have in those early years in Westwood and during his first years in Westwood). However, I think we are at a point now perhaps Coach Howland should consider unleashing his frosh for extended mins without worrying about losing a game.

At this point of time, I think we should head into Washington game with the mentality of nothing to lose. I strongly believe we are going to be the underdogs in that game against a very talented, Pac-10 leading Huskies team, that we haven’t beaten since 2004. It will not be the end of the world if we leave Washington splitting the road trip. We will still be in the thick of the conference race and not in a bad spot at all given our first 5 out 7 conference games were on the road.

What we need to do is come out on Saturday and play with the underdog mentality of NOTHING TO LOSE and show no fear. I am sure the memories of last year will be fresh in everyone’s mind. We all remember how Dentmon embarrassed DC all day and how AA2 was subject of one of the worst cheap shots we have ever seen in Pac-10 conference play. What we will need to do on Saturday is come out and start with defense. If our guys simply focus on locking down the perimeter and securing the paint, not giving up any second, third chance points to the Huskies, we will have a shot of escaping with a victory. If we can get back in our defensive grove, it will at least for now go a long way in alleviating the lingering concerns from last few games. Again it will not be the end of the world if we don't manage to pull out the win tomorrow afternoon but in terms of momentum, I think it will give us a rocket boost heading into rest of the season.

We will have more on the Huskies either later today or early tomorrow but the motto around here should be: we have nothing to lose on Saturday.

GO BRUINS.

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