I finally got down to the Event Center to watch the team play in person. Many thoughts on the game and the team.
First, I am very impressed with the talent level we have. If Boise State is the best team in the conference (their record says so), then Nessman and his staff has done an excellent job of recruiting players who should do very well in the WAC. For the first time since Bill Berry was coaching here, we have a team that has sufficient size at all positions. In fact, I see some spots at the 1 and 4 where we actually can create size mismatches in our favor. If anything, I think Nessman has possibly come closer at reaching the upper part of the WAC talent gap on his basketball team than Tomey has for his football team.
I had a great time watching the game last night. I know we lost, but I like the team and that while it had 2 opportunities to fold up at the end of the first half and at the end of the second half, they battled back and forced Boise to keep playing.
I watched Justin Graham and saw a kid who to me has barely scratched his upper limit of potential. In the second half (when the scoreboard started working in terms of showing the players stats--what's up with that?) I was surprised to see that he had scored 18 points. It didn't seem as if he'd scored that much, it comes rather easy for him.
In the first 10 minutes, I was very impressed with our inside game. The post players got good position and created very good angles to score easily. I like the team's athleticism in terms of guarding players and getting to loose balls and rebounds. Unfortunately, the effort did not seem to be there all game, but the potential is there and I'm impressed with that because it's been so long since we've had quickness and length.
This team is very young, and its inexperience reared itself at several points during the game. We got out to a 7-point lead just before the 8-minute mandatory timeout was going to be called. Boise State looked a little shell shocked, we were a little tired, but had a ton of momentum going. Oakes blocked a shot and we got the ball back. Graham missed a layup and Oakes missed the follow jam, but Pierce got the long rebound. At this point, calm the team down, and work the offense and get something going to the basket. Instead, we settled for a long jumper. Boise got the rebound, got fouled, and the 8 minute timeout came. I watched Greg Graham coaching Boise's huddle, and the team looked really focused and determined. They came back on the court, worked their offense, setting good down screens, swinging the ball, moving the ball every couple of seconds, and got plays going to the basket. The only time they shot long jumpers was after they passed the ball around a few times, caught the defense switching and getting tired of moving, and found a wide open guy. And Boise's got some damn good shooters as well. Boise ended up going on a 15-2 run in five minutes. We're jacking up panicked jumpers, stopped trying to get the ball inside, and then came back on D and let their wing players just drive and dive below the free throw lane time and time again. That was very hard to watch.
When I watch a college game, something I pay attention to is when a coach chooses to use their first-half timeout. In college, you get 5 timeouts to start the game, and you lose one if you don't use it by the end of the first half. I thought Graham was going to take his with about 9 minutes to go in the first half, but he didn't need to because he was able to wait until the 8 minute mark for the mandatory. While Boise was going on their run, I was waiting for Nessman to use his timeout. He never did. He finally used it with about a minute to go, but he could have stopped that 15-2 run much earlier. That long first half run possibly cost us the ballgame, although we did have a good stretch in the second half. Graham on the other hand, used his timeout at a wise time. We cut the lead to 4 with about 20 seconds to go, and Graham used his timeout to set up the offense. Boise managed a foul off a rebound and they scored.
Justin Graham though, went court to court so damn fast and scored that layup right at the halftime buzzer to cut it to 4. That was impressive. Nice assertiveness and a great way to gain some momentum at the half.
In the second half, it was a similar pattern. We played with Boise for the first 10 minutes, then went on a little run, capped by Graham's 3 pt play to put us up 6 with under 8 minutes. Again, I was wondering if we could put the pedal to the metal and stretch the lead to double digits. A couple of more baskets, and Boise has to drastically change their game plan to start shooting 3s and quicker shots to get back in to the game. After Graham's made FT, Boise brought the ball up, marched right inside the foul line, and hit an easy jumper. We had 5 team fouls at the time. Someone has got to put a body on the penetrator and at worst, knock the guy flat on his behind. Not dirty, don't try to hurt anybody, but send a message that you'll feel it and can't just march inside whenever you want.
Again, in a five-minute span from just under 8 minutes to a little over 2 minutes remaining, Boise went on a 17-3 run to go from a 6-pt deficit to an 8-pt lead.
I thought we'd fold up and lose by double digits. However, the guys brought some energy, and cut it to 4 on Wright's beautiful, assertive drive and conversion. But he missed the key FT that would have cut it to 3. After that, we were fighting the 2-possession uphill battle, which required perfection on both ends and a little luck. Boise was too good to let the game slip away at that point.
A few comments about some individuals:
--Wright is a heck of a player and I don't think I saw his best game. I like what he can do and seems interested on the defensive end.
--Pierce is a very talented player, but he sure does disappear for really long stretches. So much so that it appears Nessman limits his minutes when Pierce doesn't seem interested. It was a shame to see him go down, though, late in the game, because we could have used his shooting. When I walked out of the arena, he was limping, and said that it was a knee to knee collision. I could tell that he was in a lot of pain, but he took some time to talk with me and we shook hands as he left. I thought that was really cool, because I could tell he was hurting and he still was very nice to me and laughed a bit as well.
--Graham showed some amazing things to me in terms of ballhandling, quickness, and length. He's a real mismatch at point guard. He reminds me of a young Jason Kidd, more than anybody. He can run the floor, pass on the break, and he can rebound very well for a guard. I think he's got better jumping ability than Kidd. Unfortunately, he also reminds me of Kidd in that he's not a good outside shooter. He's a decent foul shooter, and looks confident at the line, which is good. But that jump shot, I'm sorry, is not a thing of beauthy. I know it's a hard thing for a kid to do, but I wish that someone, right after the season is over, could break down that jumper, and start from scratch with better mechanics. If his jump shot were consistent, he'd be an incredible triple threat. Right now, I think it's a heck of a lot easier for an opposing coach to game plan him. Back off him, let him shoot from outside, and take your chances. Give that kid a good jump shot and a rocker step, and geez, I truly believe he scores 25+ ppg without a problem. A good jump shot from him would also open up the post players because the opposing team's guards wouldn't be able to cheat down on them. BTW: Littletime, the only thing I can come close to critcizing Justin on is his jumper and occasionally his perimeter D. I like his overall game a ton. I think that the jumper could the difference between his playing in the NBA and possibly becoming a very good NBA player.
--While I'm very sold on Nessman's ability to recruit and his positive, honest attitude toward rebuilding the program, I highly question his in-game coaching ability. Last night, to be honest, was like watching Dale Brown coaching the San Jose State sideline, and Bob Knight coaching the Boise sideline. I think Boise's got good talent and solid shooting, but I think our talent level overall was actually a little higher. I know that we have a very young team, and I hope that I'm mistaken with Nessman's Xs and Os in that these young players have to just grind through this season, but I saw many things last night that looked like less than stellar coaching in terms of stopping another team's big run with a well called timeout, running your half court offense and getting inside shots and motion toward the basket, and terrible on the ball defense from the guards not stopping penetration below the foul line, to very slow downside and weakside help. Our foul shooting, while very good for the first half of the season, has become an achilles heel for us suddenly. We can't miss the front end of one and ones near the end of a half.
Still, compared to where this program was 2+ years ago (moribund) to its now bouyant stage is remarkable. Next season, I believe we win this game by 15 points. It took Boise making 2 large runs in each half to pull this game out.
I believe that if this team can peak and play its best basketball in the WAC tournament, we can win a few games. The only team that gives me large concern is New Mexico St, because the tourney is on their court.
It is nice, for a change, to be able to critique some of the finer points of team instead of waving hands in the air and saying "The team is just too small" or "The team has too many JC players who won't be around."
I can't wait until Saturday night! I asked Pierce to score 20 for us vs Idaho-you-da-ho.