College basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy works in the Salt Lake City area and frequently attends Utah's basketball games. He was on hand to witness last night's debacle and, thanks to its unusual result, had something to write about on his blog this morning.
As one might have expected in a Utah win, the Utes played better than normal. The ran a crisp offense in the first half and only committed three turnovers while racking up 29 points in 27 possessions. It also helped that the normally sloppy Utes encountered a zone during the entire half. This allowed Utah to take better care of the ball and also take the air out of it. The game ended with just 60 possessions in 45 minutes which undoubtedly boosted Utah’s chances as well. Furthermore, Washington State made just 10 of their 22 free throw attempts. The Utes played better than usual, and the Cougars (except for Brock Motum) played worse than usual, and that’s how these things happen. It should happen to Towson before the end of the season, too.
I can't remember exactly, but I would guess Ken Bone had the Cougars switch into a zone after 6-10 Jason Washburn burned them for a couple baskets down low to start the game. This wouldn't seem to be a terrible strategy, as Utah is typically a poor three-point shooting team. However, Pomeroy watches much more Utah basketball than I do and he observes that allowing the Utes to slow the game down worked in their favor.
To Bone's credit, he eventually realized the zone was not working. After halftime, WSU began trapping Washburn. He was largely ineffective and it forced more than a few turnovers. Now, why this wasn't something that was seen in film before the game? That is a good question. Washburn has been Utah's most efficient player all season and is their second most important offensive player. Trusting Charlie Enquist, and sometimes Brock Motum, to guard him straight-up to begin the game proved costly.
Pomeroy also looked at the officials' foul calling. Many of you who watched the game know that WSU built a large foul advantage in the first ten minutes of the second half, as they were more aggressive towards the hoop and Utah looked a little desperate to regain the momentum. Here is what Ken observed:
At the under-12 media time out in the second half, Utah had committed eight fouls to Washington State’s one. Being obsessed with probabilities, I contemplated the chances that the next foul would be called against Washington State. You might be aware of this study, which showed that officials prefer to avoid lopsided foul counts. Not only was the foul count unbalanced at this point, but there were three other things going for a high chance of a Wazzu foul – 1) Utah would have the ball coming out of the break; 2) the game was at Utah, so the crowd was rather ornery to this point; and 3) Utah was trailing. It turned out Washington State would pick up two fouls on the ensuing possession.
It's well-known at this point that officials are notorious for "evening up the fouls" and this seemed to be the case once again last night. After that media timeout, in which WSU was already in the bonus with almost 12 minutes left to play, they would go on to shoot just six more free throws in regulation and Utah was called for just five fouls, only two of which were of the common or "non-shooting" variety.
Did Utah suddenly change the way they were playing? Doubtful. WSU's philosophy didn't change much either.
I encourage you to go to the post and look at some of the data that Pomeroy presents on this phenomenon. Someday we will have emotionless robots to do the officiating. Someday those robots will become self-aware and destroy life as we know it. But in between those two somedays, there will be the best damn college basketball officiating the world has ever seen.
Don't take the observations on the officiating as an excuse for anything or to make you feel any better. Last night's loss is one that is inexcusable for the coaches and players. There were a number of failures, from game scouting to preparation to execution and everything in between that led to giving Utah their first and possibly only conference win. For the second straight week, a WSU opponent had their best game of the season, and that is what is most disappointing in all of this.