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WSU basketball's improvement in conference play, by the numbers

How did WSU win two of its first three Pac-12 games after such a horrid start to the season? We look at the numbers for an explanation.

DaVonte Lacy has led a Cougar offense that has been pretty good as of late.
DaVonte Lacy has led a Cougar offense that has been pretty good as of late.
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State men's basketball just won 2 of 3 on the road to start the Pac-12 conference schedule, including a win over in-state rival Washington.

We didn't see this coming, and the numbers certainly didn't see this coming.

The Cougs fell to No. 229 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings following a home loss to Idaho on Dec. 3. That was lower than any ranking WSU had finished with in KenPom's system, including Paul Graham's final two teams. It inspired me to chart their "historic badness".

But WSU has been able to up its game since that embarrassing loss to the Vandals, rising to No. 163 after its latest victory. And much of that improvement can be credited to strides made on the offensive end.

The average offensive efficiency in college basketball this season is 100.7 points per 100 possessions. Since Idaho, the Cougars have fallen below 102.0 just once - the loss to Stanford when WSU's struggle to hit shots undermined what could have been a solid offensive performance on free throws alone.

In the three conference games combined, WSU is just under the national average with a 99.6 efficiency. That might not sound good at first, but consider this: For all Pac-12 games, the average efficiency is just 98.6. The Cougs may be below average nationally, but they are above the mean in league play.

How have the Cougs done it? Not through hot shooting - WSU's 45.6 effective field goal percentage isn't pretty. Instead, Ernie Kent's squad has been able to take care of the basketball by avoiding turnovers at the second-best rate in the conference, and getting to the free throw line at the highest rate.

The interesting thing is that the worst Pac-12 performance (Stanford) came against the worst rated defense in adjusted efficiency (89th), which as I alluded to above was largely impacted by an abnormally poor night at the free throw line. Cal (63rd) and Washington (59th) both check in with respectable defenses and that makes WSU's ability to be above average in those games all the more impressive.

So, in two of three games, WSU's offense has been much better than what you'd expect from an average offense. Meanwhile, the defense has been just about average.

Taking a look at the defensive efficiency numbers against Stanford and Cal would make them seem like two completely different performances - the Cardinal were around 1.1 points per possession while the Golden Bears were down at 0.96. But given how those teams have performed throughout the season, those numbers are relatively similar.

For the year, Stanford's adjusted offensive efficiency is at 109.1, or about 1.09 points per possession. Cal sits at an adjusted offensive efficiency of 98.6.

And UW? The Huskies are at 102.9 for the year and scored 104.7 on WSU. That makes one slightly below average performance, one above average performance and one below average performance in three league games.

WSU has managed to hover around "just below average" on defense by doing two things well: Limiting offensive rebounds and limiting free throw attempts (4th in the conference in free throw rate allowed). The Cougars are snatching nearly 80 percent of defensive boards in league play (second best), compared to 70 percent across all its games.

Can the Cougs keep up this level of play throughout the rest of the season? It seems highly possible on offense, where the upward trend started well before the Pac-12 schedule.

The defense is harder to pin down. It's fluctuated between really bad and average for much of the season, and the performance against Washington trended more towards the bad.

But that's the encouraging thing - no one ever accused Ernie Kent of being a defensive mastermind. He has won plenty of games on the strength of efficient offense. If the Cougs can continue to play offense at an above average level, they'll have a shot to continue this look of respectability throughout the conference schedule. Especially on those nights when the defense comes out at least "slightly below average."