When I asked Washington Huskies guard Venoy Overton about teammate C.J. Wilcox's early-career-high 20 points on a blazing hot 6-for-8 3-point shooting performance he provided some pragmatic veteran insight.
"That's what shooters do: knock down shots," said Overton, who finished the game with 10 points, eight assists, and three steals. "Just talking to him on the side I just told him, 'You know these games are really good development to get you [ready for] the big games'. Because now we gotta get prepared to be able step up like that - like how he did tonight - in a big game. Sometimes people overlook these type of games, but these are the games that get you better."
That probably shouldn't be taken as an effort to diminish the quality of what the redshirt freshman did or how he did it - it was certainly an impressive shooting performance. However, Overton's typically laid-back response to the performance and his redirect to the big picture does go a long way to diffusing some of the post-game presentism that can follow something of a breakout performance for Wilcox in front of the home crowd.
The big win was nice, the performance was great, but as a team clearly aware of its long-term tournament potential, these early games are as much about fine tuning the unit for the big games as much as it is about establishing themselves as worthy of a top 25 ranking or continuing to strike fear into the hearts of future Pac-10 opponents.
"You look at everybody's numbers from when we're playing someone not so good and when we're playing somebody good - if you look at the numbers, it will be different," said Overton. "But it's all about being able to step up in the big times."
And as long as we're stepping into the big picture perspective, the performance of junior guard Isaiah Thomas might stand out as more noteworthy as symbolic of his significance to this team when they do start hitting those big games.
UW statistical MVP: Isaiah Thomas
When Thomas was asked about Wilcox's performance after the game, he was considerably more effusive than Overton.
"Like I tell him in practice, he's one of the best shooters I've ever played with or against," said Thomas. "I also don't think he understands how good of a shooter he is because if I was shooting like that, I'd shoot every time...I tell him, "You better be glad I'm not you - I'd shoot it every time.'"
Last night might have been one of those nights that he wished he had Wilcox's ability given his 0-for-6 shooting from the 3-point line.
However, what made this performance strong in comparison to his games in Maui - though certainly not comparable opponents - was his overall efficiency. In addition to having a game-high 2-point percentage of 72.72 percent, he was far more efficient overall tonight even as he used up a larger portion of the Huskies possessions. And his passing was a major reason for that.
"I thought Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas several times made great extra passes when they could have shot it and they passed to someone else for a better shot," said coach Lorenzo Romar after the game.
That passing was most evident in the second half when Overton had all eight of his assists - as well as all three of his turnovers - to finish with an impressive passing performance in which he created an assist on 47 percent of the possessions he touched the ball compared to committing a turnover on only 17.77 percent of his possessions. Although four of Thomas' six assists came in the first half, he finished the game creating an assist on a 23.4 percent of his possessions without committing a turnover, which is an impressive level of efficiency for any lead ball handler in 29 minutes.
"I just wanted to be highly aggressive," said Thomas. "That’s not just me trying to score, but making plays for others, so I came in with the mindset that I have to turn it up a bit from the first five games and be aggressive, make plays for others and myself."
The reason to go through the pains of looking at those passing numbers is described well by LBSU coach Dan Monson.
Key statistic: shooting efficiency
"They were in way too good of an offensive rhythm in the second half for us to come back," said Monson. "I think that they can play with any team in the country, especially when they are shooting the ball well and in good offensive rhythm. You have to be able to take something away from a team like Washington, and we are not able to do that. They key off of their defense and they just have a lot of weapons."
In the second half, the Huskies assisted 14 of their 21 field goals and shot 75 percent overall, including 10-for-13 from the 3-point line.
You can certainly suggest that was a result of LBSU turnovers that led to fast breaks, however UW only scored nine of their points off turnovers in the half and LBSU had considerably less turnovers in the second half compared to the first. Better ball movement - and having it from two sources - was arguably a significant part of that.
Despite the team's depth, Thomas is still important for his ability to create his baskets which he can do better than anyone against the best competition in the nation. But he's also vital for his ability to distribute the ball as well and as the Huskies look ahead to big game situations, his ability to keep the ball moving is just as important as his ability to keep pressure on the defense by putting it in the basket himself. The best way to utilize the shooters they have on this year's roster is to make sure the defense stays off balance by forcing them to rotate until someone finds themselves open for the shot.
However, all was not necessarily perfect in this game.
"I thought defensively we were way to lax in the second half," said Romar. "It’s the first half that we have played that way all year I thought. We have much better defense average in other games in the second half."
Long Beach State statistical MVP: Casper Ware
Casper Ware was probably the biggest beneficiary - or example - of UW's lax defense in the second half, in addition to:
- The Huskies giving up more offensive rebounds (LBSU got 46 percent of the available offensive rebounds in the second half compared to 14 percent in the first) and;
- Forcing less turnovers (LBSU turned the ball over on 15.54 percent of their possessions in the second half compared to 32.96 percent in the first half).
Individually, Ware 15 of his team-high 18 total points in the second half and a large part of that was his high free throw rate which saw him get to the free throw line at a high rate and shooting 7-for-10. Whereas in previous games the Huskies guards set out to strike fear into the hearts of opposing backcourts, that just didn't seem quite as present in the second half last night and it showed in LBSU's improved performance.
"We got all the key plays like loose balls and rebounds," said Thomas. "In the second half we didn’t do too well in that category, but at the same time we played hard and came out with the win."
Speaking of the rebounding, their lack of rebounding in the middle might still be an area of concern, despite the lineup change.
Key player: Matthew Bryan-Amaning
Center Matthew Bryan-Amaning came off the bench in favor of Aziz N'Diaye last night either to reward N'Diaye for his performance in Maui or send a message to Bryan-Amaning, depending on who you talk to.
But the bottom line is that Bryan-Amaning didn't rebound particularly well against either Kentucky (two) or Michigan State and only had one rebound in the second half last night. Not that N'Diaye did a whole lot better, finishing with one rebound.
Given LBSU's much improved rebounding from across the roster, but particularly their bigs, in the second half and their 12 second chance points in the second half, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that rebounding is still a concern for the team moving forward.
Then again, if they continue building on what they've done well - first half defensive intensity and moving the ball last night - they might be able to make up for the rebounding lapses.
"We're still doing a lot of things we need to improve on - we know we can get better," said Overton. "But it's a good win."
And in the big picture, there's still plenty of time to get better.