With Pac-12 conference play set to tip off on Saturday when the Cougs host Washington, it's time to take stock of where this team stands after emerging from the non-league schedule with a 9-4 record that featured three losses by a combined five points.
This is a look at the offensive side of the equation. Defense will come tomorrow. Here's a quick look at the Cougs' profile, courtesy of mostly freely available information from Mr. Pomeroy. (And if you don't subscribe to his site, I'll tell you it's a superb value for the $20 a year it costs. And if you have no clue what this stuff means, here's a good explanation.)
- Adjusted Tempo: 62.9 (319th nationally)
- Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 101.3 (132)
- Top offensive player: Brock Motum (107.6 offensive rating, 32.5% of possessions used)
Ken Bone came to Pullman with a reputation as a run-and-gun offensive coach, but this marks the second consecutive year the Cougs have been one of the slowest teams in the nation. It also marks the second time in three years that the team's success is actually being carried by the defense -- the Cougs rank in the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency this year, just as they did two years ago during their deep NIT run.
As it was heading into the season, the offense is a major point of concern for me. However, my concern has shifted a bit. I was worried that the lack of a point guard would cause problems for Motum being able to get the ball in spots where he could do damage. But following a slow start that was driven to a large degree by Motum's uncharacteristically cold three-point shooting, he's come along just fine and been the Motum we all expected.
The problem is that WSU just hasn't gotten a lot of production out of the rest of the supporting cast. If all stays the same, this will be the worst offense at WSU since Dick Bennett's final squad -- even worse than the sometimes eye-gougingly bad NIT squad in Tony Bennett's final season. Motum saves these guys from being as aesthetically brutal as those guys could be as they all looked for someone else to shoot, but in terms of effectiveness, they suffer all the same right now.
Maybe they've been less effective because of the lack of a point guard. I was leaning towards that the primary explanation, but now I'm not so sure. When I look at the major statistical differences, team-wise, from last year to this, they're really not assisting on that many fewer baskets. Their shooting percentages are down, but not where you'd expect it if the point guard really was the issue: Their two-point percentage is only off by about 1 percent.
Statistically speaking, there really are only two areas where we see major differences: Three-point shooting and free throw rate. They're shooting more threes, making fewer of them, and getting to the line a heck of a lot less. There's the bulk of your explanation for how this offense went from the top 20 percent nationally to the 40th percentile, making it one of the worst offenses in the conference.
How much of that is fixable going forward? I suppose it depends on how much you want to lay at the feet of personnel you deem irreplaceable in terms of what's on this roster.
For example, if you're convinced that this is simply a matter of poor shooting, then that's probably not going to change -- Abe Lodwick ain't walking through that door.
But what about the point guard -- is that the problem?
Personally, I'd expect the two-point percentage to be down a lot more than it is if the team isn't getting as many easy looks around the rim. But maybe the fact that they're shooting fewer twos and more threes is a result of being unable to get those easy shots in the paint -- rather than settle for a marginal two, they're shooting a marginal three. (Something I actually think is a better strategy than put up questionable twos, truth be told.) The lower free throw rate could point to this as well.
However, I think this can be mitigated to some degree by just getting stronger play out of two individuals: Royce Woolridge and DJ Shelton. Of course you always want more out of everyone, but those two have been incredibly disappointing offensively so far.
When a guy comes to you from Kansas, no matter how badly he flamed out in Lawrence, there's a certain level of expectation. And putting up a 94.8 offensive rating against a slew of mid- and low-majors while using fewer than 18 percent of possessions most certainly is not what was expected.
To be frank, Woolridge has looked fairly lost since Bone turned over the bulk of the point guard duties to Mike Ladd. He's not taking many shots, and he's got a major problem when he steps inside the arc: He's actually making fewer of his twos (33 percent) than his threes (36 percent). Perhaps he hasn't fully adjusted to not being the point guard; after all, when you prepare like crazy for a specific role, and then you're suddenly not in that role anymore, it can be problematic. But the sooner Woolridge shifts his orientation back to cold-blooded scorer, the better off I think he'll be.
Then there's Shelton. All of his offensive measurables are down from a year ago, and I'm at a little bit of a loss to explain why. It doesn't seem to me that he's doing anything all that different, other than take a handful of threes (of which he's made 5 of 11). Really, it just seems like he's failing to finish the way he did a year ago. He was a useful offensive player last season by making 62 percent of his twos and shooting roughly one free throw attempt for every field goal attempt, best on the team. This season, he's making just 42 percent of his twos and getting to the free throw line less than half as much.
Shelton's also turning the ball over quite a bit more than last season, so maybe that points to him trying just a little too hard, something that theoretically could also cause a player to miss close-range shots he otherwise would make. I mean, if effort was a problem, his rebounding rates wouldn't be improved, right? Honestly, I'm tempted to simply write off his struggles as the vagaries of randomness and expect him to be better in Pac-12 play.
With what this team is already getting out of Motum, DaVonte Lacy (who's been great), Mike Ladd (who seems to be rounding into form) and Dexter Kernich-Drew (who has dropped off in production but is still useful), if Woolridge and Shelton can step up their game, the offense should improve significantly.
If not? All those 9-9 predictions might be some serious wishful thinking.