The loss to USC was very disappointing. We suffered injuries at the wrong time, lost our composure, and lost the kind of game at home which could affect our seeding in the NCAA Tournament. A tough afternoon, especially when it was our only game of the week. We had all week to get ready, and instead of slamming the door on USC and ending their post-season dreams, we lost to the then-9th best team in the conference and sent our rival into disgusting revelry. Painful. Oh, and O.J. Mayo threw the ball in the air after the game like he just won the National Title.
As Ben Howland said after the game, the USC game hurt-and it needed to hurt because it forces you to get better and reminds you how much you care. However, at some point we need to look forward. I think a good time to start looking forward is the day before a game at Oregon. That is a Big Game.
Looking forward then, here are some notes and comments I've been thinking about.
(1) Russell Westbrook.
This kid has had a break-out season, and has turned into one of our key players. He is our most athletic guy, one of our best defenders (if not the best), and has been a consistent scorer. Forget that he has been coming off the bench--there is a case to be made that he is our most important guy.
Unfortunately, Westbrook has now suffered 1 and a half tough games in a row. The first half against Washington St. was Westbrook at his best. He hit mid-range jumpers like they were lay-ups, and played superb defense. However, his second half against WSU was VERY poor--on offense and defense--and that carried over to USC. I do not think it is a coincidence that WSU's second-half performance and USC's win coincided with Westbrook's seriously poor play. In fact, I think it shows just how important he has become.
No longer is Westbrook just a surprising benefit, unnecessary, but always welcome. No, the last two games show that he is now necessary. We need him and depend on him. We missed his mid-range jumper and rim-attacking offense last game, and we missed his defensive prowess the last game-and-a-half. Can you blame a sophomore for a couple bad games? No. But make no mistake about it, we need him to start playing better. He is now necessary to our success.
Let's hope Oregon sees Westbrook at his best.
His concussion is too bad. He is a really tough player, and I hate to see him hurting. In a lot of ways he is the heart and soul of our team-and I hope he feels better.
That said, I think Mata has become somewhat of a non-factor--And I don't like it. Putting aside his injury last week, Mata simply hasn't been getting the quality minutes of the past. During the first 9 games of the season, Mata averaged 23.22 minutes per game, and 5.11 points. Not enormous production, but important. During the last 8 games, however, Mata has averaged just 13.12 minutes per game, and only 2 points per game. Down by half. To me this is interesting, and not a positive development.
Now, it is not surprising to see Mata's minutes down this year. Kevin Love's emergence means less time for Mata, and rightfully so (in part). However, in a year where we have suffered key injuries, it is surprising to see Mata so (relatively) out-of-the-loop at this point. You'd think that Howland would be sucking more minutes out of Mata, but in fact, his minutes are diminishing.
In my opinion, Mata needs to get more minutes. We need our guys to be ready, and Mata can play great defense, and at times, has shown an ability to contribute limited scoring. However, if Mata stays on the bench, he will lose his ability to play at a high level. I've found his performances of late to be only so-so, but I'm not sure that is his fault. I think maybe some of that is his reduced playing time, meaning he is not in the flow and as ready to contribute.
Bottom line-I'd like to see Mata get more minutes so that he will feel like he is in the flow again. Then, when we need Mata-he will be ready to deliver.
(3) Keefe, Stanback, Dragovic
I believe one of these players needs to step up and start averaging at least 10 minutes per game. We need that extra player, sans Roll, who can contribute. It is likely that Keefe will be the guy, but any of the three will do. Keefe's shot looks really good, and he plays the smartest. Dragovic isn't scared to shoot (which I like), but he just isn't knocking them down, and we know Ben is suspicious of his defense. And Stanback-still a question mark. His body is still getting used to D-1 basketball, but he has an upside. I don't care who steps up, but it's time someone did.
(4) Finishing off the First Half of the Pac-10 Strong is a MUST
We have four very difficult games coming up: Oregon, Oregon St, Arizona St., and Arizona. Aside from Oregon St., all the games are potential losses, and all the games are very important.
I never thought we'd go undefeated in the Pac-10, and in fact, I think the best anyone could legitimately hope for is 16-2 (and that is asking a lot). Though keeping conference losses to 2 will be extraordinarily difficult, it is possible. But it needs to start with us finishing off the first-half of the conference season with only 1 loss--which means we need to win our next four. It sucks losing to SC at home--but if we can win the next four, we will be in great shape.
It starts with Oregon on the road. An incredibly difficult game, but one that is win-able. Howland doesn't lose two games in a row very often, and the players will all remember Brooks hitting the game winning shot last year. Here's to hoping that we can ride those setbacks to victory tomorrow night, and cleanse ourselves of the USC embarrassment.