Jumping off to a great start against the top team in the conference – a team featuring the likes of Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher – and then losing down the stretch isn't blowing it. It's an example of a bunch of youngsters not knowing how to close the deal.
That isn't uncommon for a young team. I'm not trying to make excuses for the Cougs or make losing sound acceptable. But I can remember a young team four years with a pretty darn good coach and decent players that had a penchant for losing tight games. In fact, they finished in the bottom of the Pac-10 with a couple five-game losing streaks that included countless two-point loses. A missed box-out. A couple missed free throws. Breakdowns in communication in defensive transition. Silly turnovers. You name it and we found a way to lose games. Somehow, we were able to develop a winning mentality that translated into winning games the following year.
So what changed?
Aside from our physical abilities and skills being better, mentally we turned the corner. On the defensive end, only one word can accurately portray our mentality: PARANOID. We were paranoid defenders. We were trained to always be aware of where the ball and your man were. Seems pretty familiar right? It's a pretty elementary concept. But it means a lot more when you believe that your positioning, awareness, and alertness will mean the difference between a win and a loss.
Get five guys to play with that mentality for 40 minutes and you're going to win a lot of games regardless of the Xs and Os of your defensive philosophy. Now I understand 40 minutes with everybody embodying that doesn't happen easily. It might even be unrealistic. But you want to know what is realistic? Guys locking on mentality, especially defensively, in the last four minutes of a game. I haven't seen that from this group yet. Not saying it can't happen, just saying I haven't seen it yet.
A more common term to describe a paranoid mentality is having a sense of urgency. When a team plays with that, you will see guys boxing out. You will see guys fighting through screens like an NCAA berth was on the line with that one possession. You will see guys talking on defense. Check that; you will see guys screaming at each other on defense. Screen coming right! Flood, Flood! Recover! Choke! Trap! Rim! Back! You will see guys flying to the rim to set up for a charge. You will see guys rallying to the ball. You will see guys diving on the floor. You know what? You might even see guys get mad at each other for blown assignments.
Will it be perfect? No. Will it be passionate? Absolutely.
I've seen our guys do these things in limited stretches. They certainly have the ability. In fact, far more ability than the last three WSU teams had. But can they learn to mentally lock it on? Can they play with a sense of urgency, especially during crunch time? I did not see those qualities against Cal, and you don't have a prayer trying to outgun a team like that for 40 minutes. I can't put a time table on how long it will take them to establish this winning-type of mentality. But if I could rent a genie and make one wish for the team, it would be this: for them to stop "ball-watching," and be active defenders after their man passes the ball. In my mind, that's the first thing that needs to change. We have several players that have the ability to be great on-ball defenders, but once their man passes it, they become defensively inept.
A couple of things to keep in mind before I sign off. First of all, I am not trying to compare our past teams with the present. However, I do feel like things we learned and the process we went through provides insight for what might help this group become successful. Secondly, I apologize for seeing nearly everything from a defensive lens. I literally can't help it. But I've always felt that defense is the one thing you can always have control over.
I can't tell you if the Cougs will win in crunch time, lose by 20, or win by 20 against the Bruins. But if you see somebody grab a fistful of his teammate's jersey and see a vein or two pop in his forehead, just know that we're at least on the right track.