It all starts on the defensive end -- and I'm not just saying that because I was raised on Bennett Ball. Road games, especially at a place like Gonzaga, hinge on defense. Here's why: Nothing, nothing, nothing, gets a crowd going like fast-break points. Now it's obviously the goal of every team from pee-wee to Division 1 to not give up fast-break points or uncontested shots. But the difference is that on the road, a fast break dunk turns the crowd from loud to frenzied.
Players love it. They feed off it. It works wonders for confidence -- even if you're not the guy who scored. That single play and resulting response from the crowd will give an entire team a shot of adrenaline that translates into passionate defense for at least the next two possessions.
Solution? Shut off the path to easy hoops by getting back on defense. Do it consistently and you're accomplishing more than keeping easy points off the board -- you're keeping enemy fans out of the game.
For the most part, getting back on defense is a mentality and a habit. However, there is one thing that can off-set that effort, no matter how well it's done: turnovers.
Yep, the ol' T-word.
Crowd energy is one thing. Mix it up with a bushel of turnovers and now you have a recipe for deep dish trouble.
Young teams tend to struggle on the road in part because their added anxiety, if not channeled properly, manifests itself in the form of turnovers. Younger players, no matter the venue, typically make more questionable decisions than a "boss with the ball" veteran. But doing so on the road is extra costly.
Mind you, committing a turnover, say, in the middle of Alaska in front of 1,500 neutral fans against Nicholls State isn't going to kill you. Different team, different area, different story. Against Gonzaga, a turnover likely leads to an easy basket and 6,000 Zag fans on their feet.
The Cougs have committed too many turnovers this season. So far, it hasn't cost them a victory. They're young, but they have the ability to take care of the ball. Against Gonzaga, they've got to display big-time ball care. Their awareness of ball security needs be through the roof if they want to give themselves a chance.
So let's forecast a bit. Say the Cougs come out Wednesday and make Gonzaga play against a set defense every possession. What's the next detail to look for? Ball pressure, ball pressure, ball pressure.
In every WSU game I've watched so far this season, when the Cougs have played solid defense it has started with their pressure on the man with the ball. In general, ball pressure is an indicator of how much energy a team is playing with. It is vital because it can mask defensive mistakes.
So far, the most common mistake I've noticed on defense is the hesitation by the guards in whether to "tag" or "short-cut" an off-ball/away screen. I noticed at least four occasions during the EWU game in which our guards became "screen magnets" and stuck to the screen instead of deciding on a route and pursuing it hard.
So what's that all mean when the Cougars square off with the Bulldogs? Simply, it means the Cougar guards must become more decisive in those situations. But if they're not, hopefully outstanding ball pressure can buy some time.
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, a young team is more prone to defensive breakdowns. There is, however, no excuse for ball pressure breaddowns, regardless of experience level. For that reason, the Cougar players must understand how important it is in order to hide breakdowns that will inevitably happen over the course of a game.
Now let's move to offense (and you thought defense was all I cared about!). The Cougs must improve their screening/sense of moving with a purpose. Don't get me wrong: I've got 43 reasons to love what Klay Thompson is giving to this team. But I will admit that it seems like guys do a lot of watching once he touches the ball. At times, our screens are whiffs -- leaving the guards catching the ball in non-scoring areas.
If the Cougars' screening improves, guys get better shots in better spots. Which, coincidentally, helps shot selection. Bad shots can frequently lead to bad misses/long rebounds … which takes us back to easy outlets for easy transition hoops by the opponent. It's funny how everything in this game seems to come full circle.
Now, I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that Klay is going to get his points on Wednesday. That's quite a bold statement on my part given that he is one of the top scorers in the country. But my formula for a win calls for more than one man filling the hoop.
In fact, I'm actually gonna call for a big man and another guard to have a break out game on offense. Maybe it's DeAngelo Casto getting a momentum-swinging tip in down the stretch or Abe Lodwick draining a handful of threes. And one more guard needs to step up and provide scoring alongside Klay's, much like Reggie Moore did at times in Alaska (sidenote- does he look explosive in transition or just what?).
Of course, there are many other cliché-type things that are legitimately important … free throws, rebounding, three point percentage, etc.
But the funny thing about basketball is this: the more important the game, the more basic it becomes. I can remember leaving the locker room before big games numerous times with the Bennetts' words echoing in my mind ... take good shots, make them take tough shots.
So here's to the Cougs taking good shots, and making the Zags take tough shots.
And if all else fails, well, what the heck – 43 points from that one guy might work too.