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Some thoughts on WSU’s stunning win over Arizona State

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Basketball is weird!

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

For one night, at least, Ernie Kent pulled all the right strings as the Washington State Cougars somehow whipped the Arizona State Sun Devils, 91-70. It was easily the Cougs’ best win of the year when opponent, location and final margin are taken into account.

Since you’ve likely already learned about the broad strokes of the game elsewhere — sorry for the lack of a regular recap, this winter weather is really throwing a wrench in my job and family plans this week — I’m going to focus on a few takeaways rather than give you the traditional recap.

Ernie deserves a lot of credit

Regular readers know that I don’t think much of Ernie Kent as a coach. But credit where it’s due: Last night, he had a good night.

Let’s start with the defensive game plan. One thing WSU is notorious for is giving up easy two-pointers — they rank 338th nationally in two-point percentage defense and 51st in the ratio of FTA/FGA. It’s maddening watching the defense let a guy get to the rim and then lay the ball without much contesting or fouling.

But last night, WSU came out playing man-to-man defense, and anytime a player was around the rim, the Cougs tried to make it tough, even if it meant fouling. Why? Because ASU ranks 285th in free throw percentage. It worked out perfectly: The Sun Devils shot 23 free throws in the first half alone, but could only make 13 of them.

It was such a difference from previous games that it’s hard to conclude that it wasn’t a purposeful strategy. And it was a smart one.

Then, once WSU got its lead and ASU started trying to quickly get back in the game, he switched to a zone. Anyone who’s watched WSU play its zone this year knows it’s an awful zone that can be picked apart with a little patience. The Sun Devils, flustered by being in a position they never expected, lacked the requisite patience and settled for quick three-pointers or clumsy drives into the lane — instances where even a bad zone defense can be effective.

And, for a night, the Cougars were great on the defensive glass: They snatched 72 percent of the available defensive rebounds, a perfectly respectable mark against a team that has been one of the best in the country at offensive rebounding.

For as bad as WSU has been under Ernie in the last four seasons, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say that the team quit on him. Last night was as good an example of that as any. I don’t think we witnessed a turning point or anything, but for a night, we all get to smile about Cougar basketball.

Robert Franks is special

Franks scored 34 points and grabbed 13 rebounds — 11 of them defensive. He also had four blocks and four steals. I can’t remember him having a better all-around performance than this one, where he was affecting the action at both ends of the floor.

It’s performances like that one from him that keep me watching the team, even when they stink. He’s awfully fun.

Basketball is weird

There’s a reason why basketball teams rarely go winless in conference play — when you play dang near 20 games, stuff just happens.

No matter what happened last night, we have a season’s worth of evidence to show that ASU is a superior team to WSU. And yet, WSU won because the worse team sometimes beats the better team; saying WSU had a 7 percent chance of winning doesn’t mean they had no chance of winning, it just means it was unlikely, and sometimes unlikely things happen.

I don’t know what percentage of the simulations have WSU beating ASU by 21 behind a defensive performance that allowed just 0.82 points per possession — ASU’s lowest output of the season and the second-lowest allowed by WSU all season — but it’s got to be like ... 1 percent? Maybe less? But that’s why we do sports. Because you just never know!

Obviously I was wrong about the outcome of the game, but a couple of factors I wrote about in the preview that I thought might allow WSU to keep it close definitely played out — and the extreme manner in which it happened was what allowed the Cougars to win by such a wide margin.

Factor 1: The letdown/look ahead

WSU might benefit from being in a prime letdown spot: ASU is coming off an emotional overtime win over the Arizona Wildcats last week and is also surely thinking ahead to Saturday’s big-time matchup with the Washington Huskies. The latter is really the only chance the Sun Devils have the rest of the regular season to pick up any kind of quality win that might impress the committee.

These are things that are clearly difficult to measure, but ASU looked to me like a team that thought it was going to cakewalk past WSU. Even when WSU was moderately ahead midway through the first half, the Sun Devils had a look of, “don’t worry, we got this, it’s just a matter of time.” With 5:41 to go before the break, Luguentz Dort completed a three-point play to pull ASU to within eight.

But then, Robert Franks scored WSU’s next eight points over a minute and a half while Dort could only answer with a couple of free throws, and suddenly the Sun Devils were down 14. You could almost feel them thinking to themselves, “Wait, crap — they’re not going away?”

That’s when ASU kind of lost its discipline — weird, I know, for a team coached by a guy who constantly screams at the refs and got T’d up with his team down by 20 — and the Cougs won going away.

Factor 2: The three-point lottery

I won’t harp too much on WSU’s defensive matchup with ASU — it’s a virtual certainty that the Sun Devils will score a bunch of points, unless they decide to take and then miss a whole bunch of threes. They’re not a fantastic shooting team. ...

The Cougars do have a chance to put up points of their own, however. ASU boasts a fantastic two-point defense, but the Sun Devils give up tons of threes, which WSU will be all too happy to take. Perhaps they can get hot from deep and keep it close for longer than we expect

ASU started the game by missing its first 17 three-point attempts. WSU, meanwhile, made 9 of its 17 threes in the first half alone.

Had ASU made something reasonable (like, say, six of those), and had WSU shot at a more normal clip (like, say, making six instead of nine), the Sun Devils would have been right in the game.

Some might say that WSU’s defense had something to do with that discrepancy; I’ll buy that just a little in the second half, for the reasons mentioned above as ASU tried to close the gap quickly with dribble-pull-up three attempts. But ASU’s 0-for-8 mark in the first half was largely due to luck, and much the same could be said for WSU’s hot shooting.

Yes, Robert Franks is very good. But the Cougars were clearly shooting above their demonstrated average, and Franks was hitting contested shots. You can’t count on that happening, just like you can’t count on 0-for-17.

But sometimes, it works out — just like that one time you buy a lottery ticket and walk away with some cash.

TURNING POINT??

Nah, I don’t think so. I’m going to need a lot more convincing to think this is anything more than a fluky outlier caused by a confluence of unlikely events.

That’s not to take anything away from the players, who continue to battle their butts off. They seemed to enjoy themselves, and they should — they earned it, for sure.

But as a fan ... yeah, I still think they’ll get run by the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday.

I’ll watch anyway.