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Analysis: How on earth did WSU pull off a sweep of the Arizonas?

It’s the defense, silly.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to put into context what the Washington State Cougars just did over the past three days.

Beyond the fact that they hadn’t won a road game of any kind all year before Thursday, beyond the fact that’s simulations gave the No. 229 Cougs a roughly 1-in-6 chance to even win just one of the two games against the No. 52 and No. 64 teams, beyond the fact that WSU hadn’t swept any Pac-12 road trip in a decade, there’s this:

And — somehow — this:

Think of allllllllll the teams that have played in the Pac-10/12 since 1995. And think of how none of them — NOT EVEN ONE! — did what WSU just did. That has a lot to do with McKale having historically been an impenetrable fortress, and the Arizona Wildcats are obviously down this year, but ... I mean ...

My institutional knowledge of WSU sports only goes back about 25 years, but I have a hard time believing there’s an unlikelier pair of results in the entirety of WSU basketball history than the ones we just witnessed.

It’s not just the historical context that made these results unlikely; it’s the manner in which they occurred:

WSU points per possession in Pac-12 play (minus Cal)

Type Scored Allowed
Type Scored Allowed
8 Pac-12 Losses 1.00 1.26
Wins vs. Arizona, ASU 1.05 0.82

Incredibly, a team coached by Ernie Kent won two games with its defense. (If you need a moment to gather yourself, I understand.) As you can see from the table, this isn’t just some “Ernie Kent doesn’t coach defense” trope — the Cougars had been, legitimately, one of the worst defenses in the country, ranking in the 300s in adjusted defensive efficiency. (They’re now up to 273.)

How did a team that has been so bad all year produce such spectacular defensive results this particular weekend?


Less: Zone
More: Man-to-man

Since I don’t have a Synergy Sports account and I don’t chart this stuff on my own, this is a bit anecdotal. But it seems to me the Cougs, after being a primarily zone team for the first 22 games, played mostly man-to-man in both of these, mixing in the 2-3 zone a little (particularly in the second half against ASU) and scrapping their trapping 1-3-1 zone entirely.

Arizona coach Sean Miller noticed.

“It kind of surprised me that Washington State played man-to-man from start to finish,” Miller said. “It’s not really what they’ve done in the past, but they sensed their plan was working and they did a good job.”

It looked to me that WSU had some short stretches of 2-3 zone yesterday, or maybe it was man-to-man that involved so much switching it gave the appearance of a zone.

Whatever it actually is ... thank God for it. I have said repeatedly that it should be nearly impossible for a high-major program to have a defense as statistically dreadful as WSU’s, which pointed to scheme problems more than anything else. There was nothing really to be risked by moving to man-to-man, and for a couple of games, it has worked.


Less: Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs
More: Aljaž Kunc and Marvin Cannon,

Ernie Kent told anyone who would listen in the offseason that WSU possessed more length and athleticism this year than it had in his first four years. And while I agreed that was technically true, I also was skeptical it would impact the team in any meaningful way, given that Kent had typically deployed his personnel pretty conventionally for four years.

And that’s exactly what Kent did for the first 22 games of the season, starting Viont’e Daniels in nearly every game that he was healthy and giving Carter Skaggs 20-plus minutes a game off the bench.

That rotation has started to shift over the past three games. Cannon, at 6-foot-5, has taken most of the minutes of Daniels (6-2), and Kunc (6-9) has taken most of the minutes of Skaggs (6-5). Here are the top six player combinations over the past five games for WSU:

That is how you deploy length and athleticism in a manner that is likely to have an effect. The Cougars are now better able to contest shots, and their defensive rebounding has improved.

This isn’t a knock on Daniels, who’s been a high-effort stalwart the past few years, but he ain’t ever doing this:

It really does make a difference.


Less: Standing and watching
More: Help defense

Everyone knows Robert Franks is an exceptional scorer. He’ll undoubtedly be the conference player of the week when it’s announced on Monday, thanks to averaging 32.5 points in the two games.

But that drastically undersells his overall impact right now, as he’s proving he can use his long arms for more than just shooting over people:

He was credited with five blocks in these two games, and I’m pretty sure he had at least one more that grazed his fingertips that the Arizona scorers didn’t give to him.

What’s most interesting to me is that one of WSU’s biggest problems all season has been help defense. Suddenly, there’s help coming from everywhere — including Franks, who’s been much more aggressive in these games about getting involved than he has in the past.

There also seemed to be an uptick in doubling of the post, and there were precious few baseline drives — heck, Jesse Cassino and I were even kicking around the idea that some of what WSU was doing looked awfully pack line-ish. Pretty cool to see.

Opponent factors

I saved this one for last because I didn’t want to make it seem like I was taking anything away from the things WSU itself had done with strategy and personnel. That said, I also feel pretty comfortable saying ASU and Arizona had something to do with WSU posting Bennett-like numbers on defense.

We went over ASU on Friday, so let’s talk about Arizona.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona
Not a lot of answers in Tucson right now.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure how to say this delicately: The Wildcats, as currently constructed, are putrid offensively. Like, “maybe the worst in the conference” bad.

Arizona now ranks 158th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency after getting hammered for such awful production against WSU’s poorly ranked defense. That’s the lowest offensive ranking of any Pac-12 team. The Wildcats have injury problems, and only once in their current five-game losing streak have they scored more than 0.94 points per possession. (1.05 ppp is median in Pac-12 play.) They’ve got the lowest effective field goal percentage of any team in Pac-12 play.

There’s no disputing that the Wildcats are a train wreck right now. However, until this weekend, the Cougs were the team that everyone got right against, and WSU held both ASU and Arizona well under their Pac-12 scoring outputs.

There definitely was a bit of good fortune involved when it comes to the overall numbers being so low — both ASU and Arizona missed a number of wide-open threes early in both games — but this doesn’t feel fluky to me.

Final thoughts

This was a heck of a fun pair of games to watch. The enthusiasm displayed by the players makes me so happy for them, even if it doesn’t change any of my beliefs about the direction of the program under Ernie.*

*Sorry, Ern, but you don’t get to say your team “had to get to rock bottom” as if pulling out of it is some sort of coaching achievement. It’s your job to keep them from getting to rock bottom in the first place, dude.

Given what Miller said above, it seems clear to me that some portion of these results came from doing something defensively that opposing coaches didn’t expect. And now that it’s on video, teams are going to be more prepared for it than the Sun Devils and Wildcats were — the idea of the best team in the conference will have a week to put together a game plan should temper your expectations for next weekend.

Will Ernie have a counter for the counter within the man-to-man? Or will he simply return to the trashy zones when the man-to-man experiences inevitable rough patches? Based on four years of evidence, I have my suspicions about how it will go, but we’ll see.

Additionally, Ernie has traded some offense for defense with his personnel decisions. It worked out spectacularly, but the offense hasn’t been great — scoring at just a league-average pace over the past two games while Franks plays out of his mind is almost certainly not what Ernie wants. When push comes to shove, will he be content to ride the defense even when the team falters, or will he reflexively throw Daniels and Skaggs back in there to try and jumpstart his preferred side of the court?

Again, I have my suspicions — particularly since WSU is about to play the mother of all Pac-12 defenses. But I’m willing to wait and see.