The Washington State Cougars’ 72-70 loss to the Washington Huskies was both surprising and unsurprising all at once — surprising in that the Cougs controlled the game from the outset and eventually stretched their lead to 14, but unsurprising in the fact that they blew all of that lead in the second half in a manner we’ve grown all too used to.
The second biggest bummer, behind losing to the Huskies again, was that the Cougars were unable to capitalize on the good vibes from last weekend’s road sweep of the Arizona schools in front of the best crowd of the year at Beasley Coliseum. It was still a small crowd — just 4,233 announced — but it was something.
They went home from another loss that featured a bunch of the same problems that have plagued WSU all season. Here are my quick takeaways.
- The Cougars shot better than UW, posting an effective field goal percentage of 58% to the Huskies’ 54%;
- The Cougars hit the offensive glass harder than UW, grabbing 42% of their own misses to the Huskies’ 35%;
- The Cougars shot more free throws than UW, making 14 trips to the line to the Huskies’ eight.
It’s very, very difficult to lose under those circumstances. And yet, the Cougars did just that, effectively by five points (Robert Franks’ banked in heave near the buzzer is irrelevant for analysis) almost exclusively because they turned the ball over 19 times, representing more than 30% of their possessions — worst of the season.
It resulted in 1.08 points per possession before that final three from Franks, which, all things considered, is actually really damn good against Washington. (The Huskies have allowed just 0.93 points per possession in Pac-12 play.) But it should have been so much better — and, naturally, it needed to be in order to overcome a defense that regressed back toward what it had been before last weekend. (More on that in a second.)
What’s really frustrating is that so many of the turnovers were unforced. Without a doubt, teams are going to commit a certain number of turnovers against Washington — the Huskies are 10th in the nation at taking the ball away. But I think that has a lot to do with the fact that you just can’t get away with careless, loose passes against them the way you can against other teams.
Franks and CJ Elleby committed 10 turnovers just between the two of them. You simply can’t have that lack of discipline from your two leaders.
Long live Ernieball!
There’s a podcast I listen to that did a fun little exercise a while back: Given a team of random college basketball players, which coaches would you enlist to get the most out of them? The host and his guest went back and forth for about 10 choices, and a great time was had by all.
If I applied that same thought exercise to the Pac-12, is there any scenario under which Ernie Kent isn’t battling Wyking Jones for the 12th pick?
Case in point:
- Ernie has Franks, who more or less is the reigning national player of the week, on his team;
- Franks is a dynamic scorer who can do damage from all sorts of places on the floor; and
- Franks had attempted just nine shots in the game until, with less than a second to go in a game that was already decided, he banked in an inconsequential desperation heave. In effect, Franks scored just 13 points on those paltry attempts.
About the only shot Franks could find in the second half was a series of jumpers about 25 feet from the basket. He made a handful of them, which was great and allowed the team to stay in the game until the end, but his impact on the offense was minimal relative to what it generally is.
I don’t know what percentage of the blame you want to ascribe to the coach for that, and it’s entirely reasonable to criticize Franks for being a bit passive. But it’s part of Kent’s job to put his players in spots where they can maximize their impact and it appeared WSU simply wasn’t interested in doing that with Franks, of all people.
First, Franks floated around the three-point line, where he predictably drew a lot of attention; then, he spent some time in the high post, where he was clearly uncomfortable and slow to make decisions; finally, he went back to just floating around the three-point line. There’s no doubt that Franks’ mere presence opened some things up for Marvin Cannon, who had a splendid game, and there’s a fine line between getting a player good touches and force feeding him at the expense of flow, but WSU clearly did not do enough to put Franks in places where he could do damage.
There’s just wasn’t a lot of creativity when it came to WSU’s actions against that zone.
Bonus “outcoached”: Leading by one with less than 90 seconds to go, Franks — having just secured a defensive rebound — decided he was going to succumb to the emotion of the moment and barrel down the floor toward the Huskies’ zone without any kind of numbers advantage.
I don’t know what was going through Ernie’s head at that moment. But it obviously wasn’t, “Sweet lord, what is Robo doing?!? TIMEOUT TIMEOUT TIMEOUT!!!” which is what it should have been.
Maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe I’m being unreasonable by applying results-based analysis — had Franks turned that into a bucket, I’m obviously not writing this. But that thing had trouble written all over it from the beginning, and Ernie had two timeouts in his pocket. Making sure they got that possession right was pretty important at that moment, and the moment — as it usually does — passed Ernie by. Franks threw the ball away and the Huskies turned the live ball turnover into a three-point play that swung the game in their favor.
Alas, man-to-man ... we hardly knew ye
One of the more remarkable developments of the wins over Arizona and Arizona State was the emergence of a credible man-to-man defense. It was a sight for these sore eyes, given that Ernie’s commitment to primarily playing zone had produced one of the worst defenses in all of Division I.
Much to my relief, the Cougs started out in that man-to-man against Washington. And it initially produced excellent results: WSU built a lead up to 11 as the defense generated some turnovers and produced a few blocked shots, fueling a game that was being played at WSU’s tempo. I counted just one possession of zone through the first 11 minutes or so.
Toward the end of the first quarter of the game, UW began to reel in the Cougs, closing to within four. So, Ernie switched to the zone.
Now, I have to say: This is a situation in which I’m not opposed to playing some zone. If the other team is making a run, sure — throw a different look at them for a few possessions. (Heck, even Tony Bennett threw a couple of possessions of zone at Duke last weekend, if you can believe that. I swear!) And it worked out great for WSU, which quickly went on a 10-0 run. The zone did exactly what it was intended to do, fouling up the Huskies just a little bit as they had a hard time initiating their offense against the new look.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. WSU played zone virtually the rest of the way — I think I counted three more possessions of man, all in the second half — and the Cougars were outscored 52-33 (minus the final Franks three) over the final 27 minutes of the game.
I’ll never, for the life of me, understand Ernie’s infatuation with that zone. It’s bad. It will never be good for anything more than a changeup. Yes, the man-to-man was showing cracks against UW, but we have ample evidence that the zone is quite literally worthless.
The zone minimizes the defensive skills of Franks and Cannon, which blossomed last weekend. It doesn’t succeed at the very thing a zone is supposed to do, which is plug up the middle and prevent drives: WSU ranks 325th in two-point percentage allowed after having played zone for the majority of the season, and you’ll be shocked to find out that UW shot 60 percent on its twos in the second half, including scoring 20 of its 36 points in the paint.
In the end, Washington scored 1.14 points per possession, which is still an improvement over what the Cougs had been allowing pre-Arizonas — including the 1.27 the Huskies scored in the first matchup — but it still was the most UW had scored in weeks.
I guess I probably should have just thrown this under the “outcoached” section. Whatever.
Somehow, ESPNU was worse than Pac-12 Networks
If we’re lucky, we’ll never again have to hear Eric Rothman and Adrian Branch repeat the same talking points a dozen times for two straight hours while also somehow getting numerous basic facts wrong.
I’m not yet yearning for Dan Dickau and Greg Heister ... but I’m close.