I'd been wanting to post my thoughts about this year's version of our Ben Ball Warriors for several weeks, but the timing has never seemed right. I hate to post after a loss because the taste of the loss lingers and makes it difficult to see the multitude of positives. And after a resounding win, it's difficult to see any flaws. When the first half of the conference season ended two weeks ago, I began to write this, but then the non-Bruin aspects of my life interceded and I had no time to finish it.
Those outside influences caused me to miss both games this week, which hasn't happened to me since 2004. I hope that having missed these games allows me to have a more objective perspective, or at least less prone to focus on the bad things that happened in Arizona.
During the first part of the season, I was focusing on replacing what we had lost from last year's team. Aboya couldn't replace Love (obviously), but perhaps Holiday could step right in for Westbrook. If Morgan and Gordon could develop quickly enough to replace Aboya in the starting lineup, if Collison were allowed to play off the ball on offense, if Keefe played every game like he played against the Hilltoppers in the Sweet 16 game, if Shipp played under control and ceded minutes to Malcolm Lee etc., we could be a great team. I even said after the Michigan loss that we have a team of Collison, a bunch of role players and a bunch of unproven freshmen. The key, I thought was the development of the freshmen into better players than our upperclassmen (Collison excluded). I cringed whenever Shipp or Dragovic launched 3 pointers.
This was the wrong way to view this team. It is not last year's team with some changed parts playing the same roles. No, it's entirely different from last year's team. You don't replace Love, Luc, Westbrook or even Mata.
I was also wrong about our freshmen. They may be more talented and better pro prospects than the upperclassmen, but that doesn't mean that they are better today. I also may have underestimated the so-called role players. Yes, they all play a role, but each of them brings at least a few excellent attributes. So in at least some respects, our upperclassmen are elite.
So, Howland has to play with this year's set of guys, and I think that he and the players spent a lot of time figuring out who the team is. At conference midpoint, 21 games into the season and 9 games into the Pac-10, we had an idea of who we are, and it really hasn't changed over the past 4 games and I'd even say that who we are today is probably pretty close to who we will be at the end of the 2008-09 season.
We have seen glimpses of what looks like this outstanding team, but we've also seen a team that has yet to beat a ranked opponent. With Howland in charge, I expect to see more of the former in the next several weeks, but I won't be surprised if we have some set backs.
From reading about the Arizona games, I gather that focus was a problem. Focus is a funny thing. In 2006, we lost to the team thought of as the Pac-10 favorite, Washington. One week later, we lost our focus and our game against USC and our record fell to 20-6. We gained it after that and kept it and won our next 12.
That was our last 2-game losing streak before this weekend, when our two losses dropped us to 19-6. Does this season hold for us the same magic that happened in 2006? Who knows? That's why we're going to watch the games. But I have to tell you that it could happen. Even after the team came out like gangbusters in the last home stand, I didn't think that we had really gotten the message. The freshmen were too young, and the seniors had played in too many big tournament games to get up for every conference game. I think we didn't have the same urgency/focus on the road, and I would not be surprised if this lost weekend gets the message across in a way that is sustainable.
Even after last weekend, we are in excellent shape to win the conference. After 12 or 13 games, the top 6 teams (UW, UCLA, ASU, Cal, Arizona, USC) have separated themselves from the bottom 4 (Stanford, WSU, OSU, Oregon). To be fair, the 7th through 9th teams have also separated themselves from the 10th team, but that's unimportant for this analysis. The top 6 teams have gone 26-5 (85%) against the bottom 5. That's five of their combined 25 conference losses.
With 6 games to play, we're one loss out of first place, but, we have only 2 games remaining against the other top 6 teams. One of those is UW, coming to our home this week. Beat UW, we're in a virtual tie for 1st, with only 1 game remaining against Cal and the other 4 against the very beatable bottom of the Pac. The current leader, UW has already played the Oregon schools and has 4 remaining against the top 6 and only one against the bottom 4. ASU has to go to UW and has only 2 games remaining against the bottom 4 teams. The bottom line is that we're one game out with a much better schedule the rest of the way, especially after this Thursday's showdown.
It's going to be a fun ride the rest of the way. I look forward to more ups than downs as a team that knows who it is, has been shown that complacency, lack of urgency and lack of focus result in losses, and has room for much further improvement battles for the Pac-10 title.