The leap to the NCAA tournament was always going to be a big one for the Washington State Cougars this season, and — unfortunately — they’ve gone out and shown us exactly why.
Last night’s loss to the Boise State Broncos was as illustrative as any of the four that preceded it as the Cougars closed out their non-conference schedule. There was the now-trademark long scoring drought, but more than that, there was an impending sense of doom as WSU frittered away another lead and just couldn’t make enough plays to — if you’ll excuse my mixed metaphors — right the ship and get over the hump in a close game.
Exactly why that is ... well, you probably have your own ideas. Coach Kyle Smith has affirmed that his team lacks toughness and grit, and last night he said they need to be more “willful.” Fans, of course, haven’t been as diplomatic, using words like “soft.”
I won’t get into that, because I’m just not a fan of that kind of armchair psychology from afar. If Smith says it, I believe it, because — unlike his predecessor — I’ve had no reason to find him disingenuous in his assessment of his teams. They do certainly appear to have stretches of lifelessness that we just haven’t seen from Smith’s first two squads. Why that is, I can’t say.
What I can say is that there are a couple of different ways you can look at this opening slate of games, which nominally comprise the non-conference season (even though there were a pair of conference games in there).
The five losses have come by a combined 19 points, and only one of them has come to a team well outside kenpom’s top 100. The losses to USC, South Dakota State, New Mexico State, and Boise State all were within the realm of a reasonable outcome. While the Cougars’ schedule lacked name recognition, it certainly didn’t lack dangerous opponents who could beat WSU on any given night. Casual fans might not realize it, but there’s a pretty good chance that all four of those teams are in the NCAA tournament.
And it is significant that WSU didn’t get run off the floor by any of them. All those games just happened to break against the Cougs. And for as much as some people want to ascribe that to mental fragility or something like it, the reality is that you’d expect at least a couple of plays here or there go the other direction and walk away with a couple of wins. That all of these games broke the wrong way is pretty unlucky, even though it’s not crazy in the small sample size of 13 games.
In that sense, you figure it’ll come back around at some point and they’ll win some close ones. They’ll get better, too — Smith’s teams always do — and based strictly on kenpom’s predictive metrics, they’re still on track for a 19-12 overall record and a 12-8 conference record. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the context of amassing an NCAA tournament resumé, this team has improved substantially from Smith’s first two seasons.
Wins are wins and losses are losses and the NCAA tournament selection committee really DGAF if you got tagged with an L because the ball didn’t bounce your way. And I don’t blame you one bit for evaluating the team this way.
If you follow Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, WSU dropped off his radar after the loss to New Mexico State. That certainly wasn’t helped by the loss to the Broncos, which wasn’t a “bad loss” in the way you’d typically conceive it — the Broncos are quite good! — but it was bad in the context of also losing to EWU, South Dakota State and New Mexico State. And in that respect, the Cougs have already created an big uphill battle for themselves to get back in the Dance.
If you’re one who likes to quantify just how far off the pace WSU has fallen, consider the metric Wins Above Bubble. I won’t get into the weeds of explaining how it works*, but basically, it’s a “resumé” metric that calculates how far ahead or behind you are relative to a typical bubble team. Right now — despite being ranked No. 47 by kenpom.com and No. 63 by the NCAA’s own NET rankings — WSU ranks 166th at minus-2.2 (via barttorvik.com). In other words, they have roughly two more losses than you’d expect from a bubble team. Logically, this tracks; they’re likely still in the bubble conversation if, say, they don’t completely collapse to NMSU and SDSU’s buzzer beater bounces out and then they win in OT.
*If you want to get into the weeds of how it works, this is a good explainer.
Results matter! And in terms of generating enough positive results over the final 2 1⁄2 months of the season to offset those negative results, WSU faces two problems: The Pac-12 is a lot worse than anyone anticipated and the vagaries of the unbalanced schedule haven’t done WSU any favors.
When Smith and his staff were putting together their non-conference schedule, I can only assume that they were trying to walk a fine line with a team that was still pretty young and also would be integrating a handful of new and important pieces. They settled on a moderately challenging slate that lacked marquee resumé builders but gave plenty of opportunity to compete against teams that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by WSU’s athleticism. Underlying that had to be a belief that there would be plenty of opportunities for quality wins in conference play as the team improved.
It was a reasonable strategy. But only a few teams in the Pac-12 — Arizona, UCLA, and USC — have held up their end of the bargain. Oregon is the biggest offender, also currently sitting around minus-2 in WAB despite starting the year in kenpom’s top 30, but Colorado began the season as the kenpom 35 and has dropped all the way to 76. WSU plays them each twice, and as of right now, none of those four contests constitutes a “Quadrant 1” contest. (In fact, the home games against each are currently considered Quad 3!)
That matters: The selection committee has demonstrated that Quad 1 wins and Quad 3 and 4 losses are two major components when trying to compare the strength of teams. They want to see that you can beat the kinds of teams that will be in the tournament and that you don’t lose to the kinds of teams that won’t be anywhere near it. (This is how the women’s team got in last year, for what it’s worth.)
And this is where WSU hasn’t just gotten unlucky on the court, but also off it. After narrowly missing a chance to pick up a Quad 1 win when USC came to Pullman last month, WSU now (currently) has just three chances left to pick up Quad 1 wins: vs. Arizona on Feb. 10, at UCLA on Feb. 17, and at USC on Feb. 20. This could change; if Utah, Oregon, and Colorado each pick up the pace a bit, there’s a chance that those road games could end up Quad 1, as it’s based on where the team ends up, not where they were when you played them. But still ... this surely is not what WSU envisioned when it was thinking about the best way to chart a path to the NCAAs.
Meanwhile, there also are lots of opportunities for Quad 3 and 4 losses thanks to the likes of Oregon State, Washington, Cal and Stanford. No way that could go wrong!
Between the close losses, schedule randomness, and unforeseen poor opponent quality — to say nothing of the nagging sickness/injury issues the Cougs have dealt with all season — WSU has gotten the worst of all worlds in terms of trying to make the tournament. Really nothing has broken right for them to this point.
Of course, the flip side is this: Maybe some of that randomness comes around, and there also is an opportunity pile up a lot of wins in the conference.
I won’t be among those who say we expected too much, too soon from this team, because I think expectations are good. I make no apologies for getting excited for this season — even if it appears we might have overshot ourselves a bit — and I hope you don’t either. And while these losses are bumming me out a bit, I refuse to get down on the team.
They’re still a quality team — still the best team we’ve had in a decade — and I still believe they’ve got a lot of fight left in them over these final 2 1⁄2 months. It’s both a short period of games and a long time on the calendar; certainly enough for Kyle Smith, who is a really good coach, to do what he does. And barttorvik.com says teams in our spot make the tournament about 10% of the time.
I don’t know if they’ll get all the way there, but I’ll be pretty stunned if they don’t at least make it interesting.