Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Defending will be THE key to a WAC championship

When is the last time (first time?) a defensive play -- other than a shotblock accompanied by the announcer's pet phrase -- has appeared on ESPN's Sports Center? Yet the Boston Celtics are the 'defending' world champions because of the commitment the team made towards making it as difficult as possible for opponents to score. Here's a snippet about that team metamorphosis:

Commitment to defense delivers title No. 17 for Celtics
John Hollinger

...With the arrival of Kevin Garnett and the addition of ace defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics had the third-best defensive efficiency mark since the league began tracking turnovers in 1973-74, helping them to a league-best 66 wins despite fairly modest offensive numbers...

...Of course, the reason the Celtics' defense was such a huge factor was because their three stars bought into it. While Garnett has been a beast defensively his whole career, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen weren't exactly renowned for their defensive skills. When a pair of offseason trades united the trio in Beantown, the expectation was that they'd be a quality offensive team but wouldn't get enough stops to beat the Detroits and San Antonios of the world in May and June.

Yet defense is as much about effort as talent, and something clicked when the new big three got to Boston this fall. Garnett was the league's Defensive Player of the Year, while Allen and Pierce were the main defenders on [Kobe] Bryant, and kept the league MVP in check throughout the finals.

"We held each other accountable to get on the floor every time there was a loose ball, to help in rotation when somebody was beat," said Allen. "We didn't expect any less from Paul, they didn't expect less out of me. If Kevin was out of position we let him know, and everybody followed suit. It was that accountability all year long, that everybody knew when you came in here, we don't care about the offensive end."

So we are going out on the proverbial limb to say whichever team defends the best in the WAC this season is going to win the conference.

Our basis for such a prediction: there are a number of WAC teams this season that have the requisite firepower -- the scoring and shooting talent and skills -- to put up serious points on the scoreboard. They appear fairly equal in this strength. So the one squad pledged to focus the most attention on setting up roadblocks to opponents scoring will separate itself from the others and be the league leader.

However, there are a number of aspects about this to explore.

Before anyone replies that defending requires superb quickness and pogostick jumping ability so let's look at the rosters to see who wins there, well, just refer to this list of last season's All-WAC Defensive Team:

Matt Bauscher, Boise State
Matt Gibson, Hawai'i
Lyndale Burelson, Nevada
JaVale McGee, Nevada
Fred Peete, New Mexico State

Granted, McGee was blessed with long arms and excellent athletic ability although he wasn't a solid man-to-man defender but Matt Bauscher, Matt Gibson, Lyndale Burleson and Fred Peete earned their spots through commitment and grit. They made up their respective minds to defend, did so and were awarded for there efforts.

But one of the problems in determining what constitutes good defense is how to document this points preventing passion. Is it simply the team scoring defense stat? Or the team field goal percentage defense number? Maybe a combination of the two? Plus other characteristics? Can it truly be reflected in measurements?

That's because what also has to be factored into the above is who is employing what ways to limit scoreboard fuse-blowing -- a slowdown a la holding the ball til the last 10 seconds of each possession, playing the variations of a zone, never fastbreaking. Heck, some squads probably also utilize prayer or the issuance of an opponent hex or spell.

So there's a lot to muddy the water.

Employing last season's numbers (not extrapolating them for 2008-2009 determinations but for illustration purposes) Nevada, Utah State and New Mexico State were in the top four in scoring defense, along with Fresno State. The remaining five squads had but 1.1 points a game separating them in their differentials but were a ways behind the four best.

But very curiously, Boise State finished last in scoring defense and yet won both the league championship and the conference tournament! So what gives? Is all of the above that's been written just so much manure?

Our take: let's count the BSU WAC tourney victory as at least partially an anomaly since almost anything can happen in a short series. But then how can Boise State winning the league be explained?

We call it a harmonic convergence.

The 2007-2008 Broncos were comprised mostly of very experienced seniors: a physical guy inside (Matt Nelson), someone who could defend in the paint and also further out (Reggie Larry), a veteran who was experienced at playing position and team 'D' well (Tyler Tiedeman), a stocky and strong player who led the team in steals (Anthony Thomas) and an underrated glue guy who was rarely out of position (Matt Bauscher). In this group, only Larry possessed great athletic ability.

Yes, experience definitely played a factor in Boise's success but it needs the accompaniment of maturity. The knowing what to do, the accepting of it and the doing it.

Here's another somewhat contradiction of figures -- last season's team scoring defense numbers in the WAC -- note the caboose here:

Team Avg/G

1. Nevada 69.8
2. Utah State 70.7
3. Fresno State 70.8
4. New Mexico State 72.4
5. San Jose State 74.6
6. Louisiana Tech 74.8
7. Hawai`i 75.4
8. Idaho 16 1208 75.5
9. Boise State 16 1211 75.7

But look at shooting percentage defense -- where Boise jumps from last to fourth, a statistic that tells the most compelling portion of the Broncos 2007-2008 tale:

# Team Pct

1. Nevada .430
2. Fresno State .441
3. New Mexico State .442
4. Boise State .442
5. Utah State .442
6. San Jose State .466
7. Idaho .482
8. Hawai`i .482
9. Louisiana Tech .529

Greg Graham's team did have so many things fall into place but credit must also be given for the taking advantage of such.

So that's last year's statistics. We don't have this year's -- at least not yet. There have been tremendous personnel changes for Nevada, Utah State, New Mexico State and Fresno State. San Jose State has added talent and realistically lost nobody of critical importance. Louisiana Tech is basically fielding an entire new team so simply toss out last year's numbers as invalid.

So does anyone have predictions as to which squad will set the pace defensively in this year's WAC?

Just who has the necessary combination of skill, effort, commitment, understanding and experience?

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