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Where It All Went Wrong: Team Issues

For the second consecutive year, the WSU Cougars have left us searching for answers late in the season. A year ago, it was so simple: Klay Thompson stunk, there weren't any other viable offensive options, and the team was terrible. Simple, with a nice little tidy bow on top.

This year? It's not that simple.

Thompson hasn't just been good for most of the year; he's generally been great. And as dire as it feels right now, the reality is that the team is still much better than last year -- the overall Pomeroy rating is much higher (54 vs. 122), and the minus-.01 efficiency margin in Pac-10 play is leaps and bounds better than last season's minus-.08. Whether you believe in Pomeroy's system or not, efficiency margin really is the best crude measure we have of a team's overall strength.

But while the Cougs are undoubtedly improved, that's not a lot of consolation right now. It doesn't exactly take the sting out of a season that has headed south so quickly after starting with so much promise. Some have suggested it's our fault as fans for elevating our expectations to unreasonable levels, and that might be a little true; I think we all had a reasonable expectation that such a young team would continue to improve as the season unfolded.

That, clearly, did not happen. For the second consecutive year, this team has gotten worse.

Normally, these sorts of postmortems are reserved for once the season is really over. But with it all but certain that this team will miss the NCAA Tournament, now seems like as like a good time to try and figure out how it got to this point, even if an NIT berth is possibly in our future.

I don't presume to have all the answers. And I'm certain that things are more complicated than I'm about to make them sound. Think of this post as more of a jumping off point for discussion based on quantifiable observations rather than a quest for definitive answers. Heck, if Ken Bone isn't smart enough to come up with answers to this stuff, I'm not going to pretend to be able to.

As noted in the headline, this is just Part 1, focusing on some of the global team performance issues. Think of it as a macro look at why this team is worse than it was early in the year. Part 2 will be the "micro" look, focusing on individual performances that have dropped off. Part 3 will focus on ideas for improvement for next year.

It's a little challenging to do this kind of statistical analysis because, ideally, you'd do it with some clearly delineated splits -- e.g. effective field goal percentage through January 1 vs. effective field goal after January 1. Unfortunately, those kinds of splits don't readily exist, and I just don't have the time to compile them myself. However, we do have a reasonable facsimile: Ken Pomeroy keeps both season and conference-only stats. That will have to do.

Here are some key factors which were driving forces behind the early-season start which regressed to such a degree during league play that they can each take partial blame for this late-season slide. I've listed them from what I believe are the most important factor to least important factor. Below the factor, I'll list their overall mark and the conference mark, with the attendant rank and percentiles.

This isn't to say that these are the only three things the team isn't doing well; there are others (such as offensive and defensive rebounding) that obviously aren't great. But those haven't been great all year. What I'm trying to get at is simply this: What's changed? 

(If you don't know what each of these stats are, why we use them or how they're calculated, read this.)

Offensive Effective Field Goal Percentage
Overall: 52.5% (43rd nationally, 87th percentile)
Conference: 49.3% (6th in conference, 40th percentile)

We've talked lots about how, for all of our fancy four factors and advanced stats, that basketball really is a pretty simple game. You put the ball in the hoop, you're probably going to win. Shooting trumps just about everything, as we saw on Saturday. Some teams are able to mitigate that with performance in other areas, but this team is easy: When it shoots well, it scores efficiently, and when it doesn't, well, it doesn't -- the Cougs now have a plus-.93 correlation between offensive eFG% and offensive efficiency. That's really strong.

Early in the season, this looked like it was going to be a deadly shooting team. No, there wasn't much of an interior presence -- remember, this was before DeAngelo Casto started coming on strong -- but boy oh boy could they bomb teams from outside. The 3-pointer fueled notable wins over Portland, Gonzaga, Mississippi State and Baylor, and it was a mainstay weapon of the offense.

But in conference, the team's 3-point percentage has plummeted from 39.3 in nonconference play to 32.9 -- second worst in the Pac-10. That doesn't have to be a killer, except it is when you're shooting 3s on 35.8 percent of your shots -- fourth most in the Pac-10.

How big of a difference is 39.3 and 32.9? This team averages 20 shots from 3 per game; if you're shooting 39.3 percent, you're making eight of them, but if you're shooting 32.9, you're making 6.5. That's a difference of an average of 4.5 points per game. If 4.5 points doesn't seem like much, consider that over the course of 69 possessions (this team's average tempo), that's the difference between the .99 points per possession it's averaging in conference play and a more robust 1.07.

That's a pretty enormous difference that is directly tied to 3-point shooting. And while we might have been a little naive to think this team was going to keep shooting close to 40 percent, I don't think it was reasonable to expect this sort of dropoff, either. Think about how many games might have been different with some better shooting from the outside. Then go cry.

I case you're wondering, the drop in eFG% is also partially caused by a drop in 2-point percentage, but it's a pretty small drop -- about 2.5 percent -- something that can be explained away either mostly or in part by playing defenses better at limiting penetration and with bigger front lines. 

Defensive Effective Field Goal Percentage
Overall: 45.7% (41st nationally, 88th percentile)
Conference: 48.0 (4th in conference, 60th percentile)

Again, simple game: Shoot well, prevent shooting, win games. Well, this team hasn't been nearly as good at preventing shooting as it was early in the season. The 2-point defense has been superb -- as in make-even-Dick-Bennett-proud good. But, like the offense, 3-pointers are proving to be its demise.

This team gives up a crapload of 3-point shot attempts -- 39.8 percent of opponents' shots are 3s, 21st most nationally. That's OK if you're only allowing opponents to shoot 27.1 percent, as the Cougs were during the nonconference schedule. It's not OK when you're allowing 36.3 percent, as WSU is during Pac-10 play. 

Was the shooting defense ever as good as that nonconference mark? Probably not -- it was being skewed a little bit by some really bad performances by opponents such as Southern (4-for-27) and Fresno State (7-of-33), but it did pass the eye test to a certain degree. Yes, the zone was giving up a lot of attempts, but it was also contesting a lot of those, and that's OK.

So, what's happened in Pac-10 play? If the early-season mark was a combination of some luck and some skill, I think the same could be said of the conference mark, just in the opposite direction. Yes, they're still giving up a lot of 3s, and fewer of them are being contested as well as they were early in the season, but it also seems like where teams were missing contested and open looks earlier this year, it seems like a lot of those contested looks are dropping, and most opponents aren't missing the open looks.

The truth about WSU's shooting defense is probably somewhere in the middle, but I will say this: That's why it's so important to contest shots -- teams are going to hit some of those contested looks no matter what you do. Giving up open looks is going to get you in trouble at some point.

The odd thing to me is that even as recently as a few weeks ago, I thought the perimeter defense was good enough. There had only been a couple of bad games in the first 10 or so (Arizona and at Cal come to mind). But with what Oregon, Stanford and ASU did to us in the last few weeks, it's pretty obvious there's a problem here. And it's been the difference between an elite defense -- which this one was early in the year -- and a mediocre one, which is what it is right now.

Here's what that elevated percentage means. WSU's opponents average 22 3's a game. Shoot 27.1 percent and you're making six; shoot 36.3 percent and you're making eight. Essentially, the Cougs' 3-point defense alone is worth and extra six points a game given up. When you combine the offensive and defensive troubles on 3s, you're left with this startling revelation:

This team is a net 10 points a game worse in conference play on 3-pointers alone.


Defensive Turnover Percentage
Overall: 22.0 (78th nationally, 77th percentile)
Conference: 20.0 (4th in conference, 60th percentile)

Another reason the defense was so good early in the year was that it was forcing turnovers. A 2 percent drop might not seem like much, but think about it this way: Over the course of 69 possessions, that's a drop of about 1.5 turnovers a game. The Cougs allow 1.28 points on possessions in which they don't forcer turnovers; multiply that by 1.5, and you get nearly two points more a game that are being allowed virtually entirely through not getting a couple of more turnovers.

Again, think of how a few games might have been different with a couple of more points. Combine that with the 3-point problems on both ends of the floor, and you can see how all of this is adding up quickly to make this team so much more vulnerable than it was early in the year.


In Part 2, we'll take a look at the individual performance issues that are behind some of these problems. 

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