When Pac-12 play began, it looked like the battle for last place in the league would come down to the two teams in the Evergreen State. The Cougars struggled to score in the non-conference, and DaVonte Lacy was recovering from an emergency appendectomy. The Huskies couldn't stop anybody as they fought to overcome major injuries to their frontcourt.
But Washington has used excellent 3-point defense on its way to a 5-3 Pac-12 start. WSU has scored just 0.81 points per possession against conference opponents while netting just one league win. The two rivals will meet to wrap up the first half of conference play on Saturday (3 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network).
It has been some luck for UW that opponents have shot so poorly from beyond the arc (Pac-12 opponents have hit just 25 percent on 3s), but the Huskies have also done a good job of denying the 3-point line in general. Teams are taking 3s on just 27 percent of their field goal attempts against Washington, 25th-least nationally.
But if a team does get hot from three against the Huskies, there is plenty of opportunity to exploit the defense. Washington has done a poor job defending the interior, placing last in block percentage so far in Pac-12 play. Conference opponents are also pulling down offensive rebounds at the highest rate in the league.
A return from DaVonte Lacy would certainly be beneficial. He has been WSU's best three-point shooter and the best at finding his shot from beyond the arc. If he can come back and get hot from the outside, that will loosen up an already weak Husky interior.
Combined with the rise of Que Johnson, Lacy's return could be a boon to Washington State's scoring. Teams have focused on Johnson of late, making it difficult for him to find clean spot-up looks. If Lacy is on the floor, Johnson is no longer the focal point.
Washington's poor offensive rebounding presents a conundrum for WSU head coach Ken Bone. For most of the season, he has passed on offensive rebounding opportunities for the chance to prevent transition buckets. The Cougs have been horrendous in defending transition offense.
Recently, WSU has also been bad in halfcourt defense as well. Overall on the season, teams have posted a 52 effective field goal percentage in transition and 50 eFG% in non-transition. That's not a huge difference, and the Cougs have actually been better at defending shots at the rim in transition.
But without a good interior presence, transition offense has been essential for the Huskies to get shots at the rim. Nearly half of UW's transition field goal attempts come at the rim, compared to just 28 percent in non-transition situations. Bone must decide whether to send the likes of D.J. Shelton and Junior Longrus, who are good offensive rebounders when given the opportunity, at the offensive glass for extra shots or keep up the practice of eschewing o-board chances.
It's not an easy decision, especially considering that WSU could just end up being bad in non-transition offense anyway. But given that Washington relies so much on transition offense, getting back on defense in lieu of attacking the glass probably gives the Cougs their best shot to win.
Ken Pomeroy's laptop says this is going to be close, giving Washington the slight edge. If Lacy comes back and plays just as well as he did early in the season, there is certainly a chance for WSU to come away with the victory. If he isn't back or isn't effective, it's likely that the Cougars just won't play well enough on offense to win.