The last time WSU was favored against UW in this series, it was 2009 and Tony Bennett was leading what would be his final team in Pullman. Unlike that matchup, though, the Cougars being favored in this game almost certainly has more to do with the Huskies' struggles than it does with what WSU has done over its first 13 games.
Washington (8-5) has struggled with injuries all year, as Scott Suggs, Shawn Kemp Jr. and Andrew Andrews have all missed time, throwing Lorenzo Romar's normally deep rotation into disarray. It's had a direct effect on the Huskies' style, as they're playing at an adjusted tempo of 67 possessions a game -- nearly three possessions slower than at any point in Romar's career in Montlake.
In so many ways, these are not the Huskies you're used to seeing.
While most casual fans think of high-octane offense when they think of Romar's teams, defense has been an incredibly important component for his squads and a catalyst for the offense. This, however, is a pretty terrible Washington defense, ranking in the bottom half nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The lowest UW has ranked in that metric since Mr. Pomeroy began tracking such things is 111 in Romar's second seson -- the Huskies currently rank 186 -- dead last in the Pac-12.
What's behind the change? The biggest difference is the number of three-pointers opponents are making against Washington. I mentioned in my assessment of WSU's defense that there's a provocative theory about three-point defense out there -- that the only thing you truly can have significant influence over as a defense, in terms of threes, is how many threes your opponent takes -- and the Washington defense truly is suffering in this regard.
The Huskies used to be one of the best teams in the country, year in and year out, at preventing three-point attempts, which seemingly would be a byproduct of the extreme pressure they were able to put on opponents on the perimeter. Not any more. The Huskies don't pressure like they used to because they get beat on penetration too often, and consequently opponents have been able to get a plethora of wide-open looks against the Huskies, and they're making them at a high rate -- more than 36 percent of them, in fact.
Unfortunately, the Cougars don't appear to be in the best possible position to take advantage of this, as they're not a great three-point shooting team. But DaVonte Lacy has been very good this year (41 percent) and both Brock Motum and Royce Woolridge have been capable, so it will be interesting to see if WSU's game plan is designed to take advantage of the inevitable open looks from the perimeter. You'll know based on whether they shoot a three at the first hint of a clean look.
Also interesting to see will be how UW chooses to defend Brock Motum. Last year, Romar decided to let 7-foot Aziz N'Diaye guard Motum for long stretches, with mixed success. Whether Motum attempts to do his damage from the perimeter and off the bounce or in the post could depend to a large degree on what Romar cooks up to try and limit the Aussie.
Personally, I'd like to see WSU attack from the inside out -- N'Diaye is a decent shot blocker (and also alters a number of shots due to his size), but the reason threes are often open for UW opponents is because the Huskies are pretty poor at containing penetration. As Coug fans are all too aware, that causes the other guards to help and leaves shooters wide open. Even though Motum isn't a great passer, focusing on working inside out should either result in clean enough looks from the perimeter or foul trouble for an already thin Washington front line.
UW also has a problem helping the helper on penetration, so whether the Cougs' interior passing is crisp or sloppy -- as it's been known to be -- probably will be a significant factor.
On the other end of the floor, the story is likely to be very similar. As per usual under Ken Bone, the Cougars give up a ton of three-point attempts, and as per usual under Romar, the Huskies have the shooters to make you pay: C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs are both shooting 40 percent from three, while Abdul Gaddy shoots 35 percent. WSU fans surely will remember how Terrence Ross took over the first matchup in Seattle; be forewarned that Wilcox is capable of similar exploits.
The problem for Washington is that those three guys are really all they've got, and they get virtually no help in the paint. N'Diaye is an efficient scorer thanks to hitting 60 percent of his twos (which you'd expect from a 7-footer), but that's about it.
There's one caveat on that front, however: The Huskies -- and in particular the big men -- are excellent at getting to the free throw line, one of the best teams in the country, in fact. N'Diaye and Kemp each draw about 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes, with N'Diaye and Desmond Simmons (both superb offensive rebounders) drawing the majority of their fouls on putbacks. WSU, on the other hand, is one of the best in the nation at keeping teams off the free throw line, and an excellent defensive rebounding club.
Add it all up, and -- In an incredible oversimplification -- WSU's defense is likely to perform well if it can crowd shooters and defensive rebound. How's that for analysis? The Bennetts would be so proud.
Truth be told, this is a game WSU needs to win. Pomeroy forcasts this as game WSU should win 74 times out of 100. I know the coaches, players and some optimistic fans think this team might really have an NCAA tournament bubble run in it, and if that's the case, these are the kinds of games you get -- especially with a road trip to the Bay Area looming.