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WSU Basketball: Offense is improved in spite of transition, not because of it

The uptempo offense instilled by Ernie Kent is getting a lot of credit for the team's gains this season, but transition opportunities aren't all they're cracked up to be for the Cougs, thanks to some poor outside shooting.

The Cougs are successful when doing this in transition. Not quite as much when bombing away from 3.
The Cougs are successful when doing this in transition. Not quite as much when bombing away from 3.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best things about the dawn of the Ernie Kent era in Pullman is that Cougar basketball is at least somewhat interesting again. They've already won more games overall and in the Pac-12 than they did a year ago, and that's fun!

Although another objective measure says the Cougs actually aren't any better than they were in 2014 -- their ranking of 192 via is a nine-spot drop from last season* -- most fans I've come into contact with seem to be much higher on this team.

Some (most?) of that surely has to do with the improved win total, but it's not like they've won a bunch more games -- they've got just two more wins overall, and three more wins in conference play than they did at this point last year. Nice, but hardly the stuff of 2007, right?

To that end, I think a lot of how people feel about this team has to do with simple aesthetics: The uptempo style that Kent is so well known for has made the Cougars a lot easier to watch.

WSU was 336th in adjusted tempo in and 346th in average time of offensive possession in 2014, something that isn't necessarily a problem if you're able to score with regularity and also win some games. But when you can't put the ball in the hoop -- the Cougs were last in Pac-12 play in both efficiency and shooting -- walking the ball up the floor and taking the air out of it for 25 seconds before bricking yet another shot with no hope of an offensive rebound makes a team practically unwatchable.

Fans generally shape their opinions based on offense -- you might recall that we all didn't really embrace the defense-first philosophy of Bennett ball until we started winning a lot -- so it's no surprise that a lot of people bailed on the program last season.

In that way, this year's team has been a breath of fresh air. The offense isn't just vastly improved, jumping from 233rd in adjusted efficiency to 92nd; the offense is improved while playing fast -- WSU is second in possessions per game and fourth in average length of offensive possession in conference play while being near the middle of the pack in efficiency in league games. That's a lot more watchable!

Which is why I found it incredibly interesting that this team has been pretty darn awful in its transition opportunities. Check this table out, via the indispensable (Note: "Transition" is defined as shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, and it appears the data is missing the stats from Gonzaga.)

Category FGA %total FGAs eFG%
Transition 337 25.40% 41st 49.70% 307th
Non-Transition 988 74.60% 311th 48.30% 151st

While the Cougars take a huge number of shots in transition, they're actually near the bottom of all Division I teams in converting those shots. (If you're unfamiliar with eFG% -- effective field goal percentage -- read this.) The explanation for why is actually pretty straightforward:

Category % Shots at rim FG% at rim % Shots 2pt Jumpers FG% 2pt Jumpers % Shots 3pt FG% 3pt
Transition 39.50% 64.70% 16.90% 40.40% 43.60% 26.50%
Non-Transition 27.90% 54.00% 35.10% 40.10% 36.90% 34.50%

The Cougs' favorite kind of shot in transition is a 3-pointer, and they're really, really terrible at making them in that situation. Who's to blame? Note that the top seven players in transition field goal attempts are listed in the following table, and they are ordered from most transition shots to least:

Transition Non-transition
Name % shots 3s FG% 3s % shots 3s FG% 3s
Lacy, Davonte 64.40% 29.80% 52.40% 32.40%
Iroegbu, Ike 18.00% 0.00% 44.40% 37.50%
Hawkinson, Josh 17.00% 12.50% 11.00% 17.40%
Johnson, Que 42.90% 38.90% 54.30% 32.00%
Kernich-Drew, Dexter 73.50% 40.00% 56.80% 43.50%
Boese, Brett 81.80% 22.20% 78.50% 41.90%
Redding, Ny 20.80% 0.00% 33.30% 27.80%

Of all those players, really only Johnson and Kernich-Drew are making their 3s at a rate that would be considered acceptable -- and DKD's percentage was really pushed up by the past two games, in which he shot 5-of-7 on transition 3s.

It would be easy to say transition 3s are holding the offense back from being even better, and in the simplest sense, that's obviously true -- if WSU was hitting more of its transition 3s, they'd score more points, duh -- but the simple corollary of "then shoot a lot fewer transition 3s" might not be all it's cracked up to be.

Kent's committed to playing fast and getting as much early offense as possible, which means a team can't completely abandon transition 3s. If they do, opponents will simply pack the paint to stop the ball. In order for those lanes that Iroegbu so magnificently takes advantage of to materialize, teams have to at least respect the transition 3.

I think the solution probably has to do with being more selective.

Lacy's struggles are puzzling and part of an overall issue on his part -- after increasing his 3-point percentage his first three years, he's down six percentage points from last season. But since his transition percentage isn't appreciably more crappy than his overall percentage, and we've seen him shoot well in transition before (35 percent last season). We know he can shoot. We know he's superb at getting his feet right for a 3-point shot from just about any position. So I really don't have any issue with him continuing to fire away.

But the other guys? Boese appears to be more comfortable shooting his 3s off kick-outs when he's already faced up at the target, and he seems to have a penchant for rushing his shot on transition opportunities, especially when the ball has been pushed up to him from the sideline. I still believe in him as a shooter despite his recent struggles overall, but that shot needs to go away until next season.

Meanwhile, Iroegbu, Hawkinson and Redding probably should never take a transition 3. Iroegbu is making 63 percent of his shots at the rim in transition, and he should probably know that other coaches are breathing a sigh of relief when he's hoisting a shot from 20 feet instead of two. Hawkinson needs to get down to the paint where he can do his damage on a potential putback. Redding ... well, that jumper needs some work, and he almost certainly can be more effective catching and driving into the mixer while the defense is scrambling. His passing is his strength at the moment.

The Cougs have at least six games remaining, and at least four of those fall into the "winnable" category. If they can tweak their approach in transition to squeeze out a few more points, maybe they can squeeze out a couple of more surprises.

*For what it's worth, I actually think the Cougs are better than their rating, which is based off efficiency margin and adjusted for quality of opponent. It's still being dragged down by some of the brutal early season losses, and although they've got some nice wins, the margins in those games are small while the losses continue to be by large amounts. Pomeroy's laptop just doesn't like that combination very much.