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WSU vs. Washington basketball: UW's interior defense presents major challenge

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UW's interior defense alters the way opponents play. How will that impact WSU?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Washington Huskies struggled mightily to defend the interior. Injuries depleted the front line and UW allowed opponents to score at will inside. This season, that has all changed thanks in large part to sophomore transfer from Fresno State, Robert Upshaw.

Upshaw has been dominant on the inside - blocking 17.4 percent of opponent 2s while he is in the game, best in the country. Having 6'10 sophomore Jernard Jerreau back doesn't hurt either - he blocks a decent amount of shots. Nothing close to Upshaw, but most aren't.

Thanks in large part to that upgraded shot-blocking, Washington's opponent's are shooting just 37.1 percent on 2s, 5th-best in the nation and a massive upgrade over last year's 53.3 percent clip.

But here's what is interesting - Husky opponents aren't shooting that poorly on shots at the rim, hitting nearly 56 percent. For reference, that's just 134th in the country, and the Cougars are actually 65th-best allowing around 53 percent.

How Upshaw and company are really making an impact is forcing opponents out of the lane. The Huskies have been very, very good at defending 2-point jumpers, allowing just a 26 percent conversion rate.

How does UW's defense impact WSU's offensive attack? The Cougars don't shoot a ton of 2-point jumpers relative to the rest of the country, but they do shoot them reasonably well - ranking 101st by hitting 37 percent. It shouldn't bother the Cougars too much that they can't go inside (even though it might not be a terrible idea given the percentage at the rim UW allows), because just 32 percent of their field goal attempts have come at the rim.

What the Cougars might be able to do, thanks to Josh Hawkinson's ability to knock down shots out to 23 feet if left open, is unclog the lanes somewhat, and spread UW's defense out. That could bring some less contested looks.

"Could" is key there. WSU's offense has improved as the season has progressed, especially in the frontcourt. That will be tested in Seattle today.

But hey, did you know the Huskies get the ball sometimes too? Half the time in fact!

When UW does have the ball, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss will be the focal point. The sophomore is assisting at a high level while taking care of the ball reasonably well. He also shoots more frequently than any of the key rotation players. That hasn't been to UW's benefit - Williams-Goss' effective field goal percentage sits at just below 45 percent.

Upshaw will see plenty of looks on the offensive end, primarily at the rim where he is hitting on 77 percent of attempts. Senior Shawn Kemp, Jr. (also known as "My childhood hero's son") and Upshaw join forces to create a frontcourt that attacks the offensive glass relentlessly - both pull down more than 10 percent of their teammate's misses - and convert inside (Kemp one-ups Upshaw, literally, but hitting 78 percent of shots at the rim).

Overall, UW has been excellent at the rim, posting the 33rd-best field goal percentage there. But the Huskies don't get a large percentage of their shots inside. Washington actually prefers the 2-point jumper at a strangely high rate (38 percent of attempts).

Unfortunately for WSU, it is one of the worst teams in the country at defending the 2-point jumper. Fortunately for the Cougs, that still means opponents are hitting just over 39 percent. That underscores how ineffective the mid-range game is, even when teams are doing it well.

Finally, a preview of Washington can't exclude discussing its transition offense, a staple of Lorenzo Romar's strategy. The Huskies are fast again, posting the 56th-fastest tempo nationally.

But Washington hasn't been that great in transition, posting the 192nd-best effective field goal percentage early in the shot clock. Still, transition is the opposite of the mid-range game - even when it is less effective it is still more efficient than running a regular offense.

The Cougars are middle of the road in defending transition, in addition to being middle of the road in allowing transition opportunities. UW should be able to push tempo when it wants and find easy opportunities.

In the end, KenPom predicts WSU to win just 11 percent of the time, and has UW coming away with an easy 79-65 victory. It could be closer than that - the Cougars are likely better at the moment than their KenPom rating. If WSU is to win, it will need some solid contributions from the backcourt. The frontcourt is likely to be tough sledding.

All stats come from KenPom.com and hoop-math.com.