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WSU has become a rebounding machine

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Owning the glass has become a big part of the Cougars’ identity.

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout Washington State’s game against Stanford, which the Cougs would win in triple-overtime, the broadcasting crew of Roxy Bernstein and Adrian Branch kept marveling at how well Stanford was shooting, while also seeming befuddled that it wasn’t translating into a bigger lead for the Cardinal.

They were able to (rightly) point out that Stanford was turning it over a lot, but that only told part of the story — especially since WSU was turning it over about the same amount.

Those of you who survived the Ernie Kent era remember plenty of nights where the Cougs seemed to shoot the lights out and lose anyway. A lot of that was the defense being terrible, but some of that also was the offense not scoring as many points as you’d think they should.

I wrote a long thing about it back then, called, “How to have a bad offense while actually making a reasonable amount of shots.” Definitely not the catchiest title, but it accurately described the state of WSU’s dreadful scoring — principally, that there’s a lot more to basketball than shooting, and if you’re bad at all the other things that contribute to accumulating (or preventing) points, shooting only goes so far.

The godfather of basketball analytics, Dean Oliver, called “all the other things that contribute to accumulating (or preventing) points” the Four Factors. They’re ordered here in relative importance:

  • Shooting efficiency, measured by effective field goal percentage, which weights made 3s more heavily than 2s, because duh 3s are worth more than 2s
  • Turnovers, measured by turnover percentage, which is just turnovers divided by possessions
  • Offensive rebounding, measured by offensive rebounding percentage, which is just the percentage of your own misses that you get — or, offensive rebounds/(offensive rebounds + opponent defensive rebounds)
  • Free throw volume, measured by free throw rate, which is just free throw attempts/field goal attempts.

The Four Factors can tell you a whole lot! Especially if one of them is particularly out of whack. In Stanford’s case, it was this: The Cardinal grabbed only two offensive rebounds in 55 minutes. That means WSU secured an incredible 94% of defensive rebound opportunities.

Stanford has been a poor offensive rebounding team all season; they rank 245th nationally in OR% and 11th in the Pac-12 in conference games. But even teams who aren’t trying to get offensive rebounds typically find their way to around 25% of their misses, and WSU nearly shut them out on the offensive glass.

Meanwhile, on the other end, WSU racked up 18 offensive rebounds — 35% of their own misses. Ten of those came in the 15 minutes of overtime.

This wasn’t an accident, or just a particularly fortunate game: The Cougs have been dominating the glass on both ends of the floor for quite a while now. In conference games, they’re up to 3rd in the Pac-12 in collecting their own misses (31%). They also rank 6th in limiting their opponents’ offensive boards (26.5%) — and it’s worth noting that they’re closer to 2nd than they are to 9th.

That’s the rebounding margin that actually matters, not the one that is driven by the raw number of missed shots, and thus doesn’t tell you much. This is a much better way to look at it:

Rebounding margin in Pac-12 play

Team Team OR% Opp. OR% Margin
Team Team OR% Opp. OR% Margin
Arizona 33.3 25 8.3
Arizona State 21.4 32.7 -11.3
California 24.2 26 -1.8
Colorado 29.6 25.5 4.1
Oregon 28 27.8 0.2
Oregon State 28.9 29.9 -1
Stanford 23.5 27.5 -4
UCLA 29.8 23.5 6.3
USC 35.2 26.2 9
Washington 24.3 36.5 -12.2
Washington State 30.7 26.5 4.2

In the last 10 games — a little more than half the league season — only Oregon has exceeded 23.3% offensive rebounding against the Cougs, and in the last nine games nobody has been able to hold WSU under 30% offensive rebounding. That’s a significant advantage on the glass.

Foregoing offensive rebounds — as Stanford does as a matter of philosophy, most likely in an effort to stop transition opportunities for the opponent and set up their defense — comes at a cost. Every offensive rebound is another bite at the apple, and WSU is showing just how much those second chances can cover a multitude of other sins. Consider Saturday:

WSU vs. Stanford, Four Factors box score

- WSU (85) Stanford (76)
- WSU (85) Stanford (76)
Pts/Poss 0.96 0.86
eFG% 44.7 57.8
TO% 24.8 25.9
OR% 34.6 6.2
FTR 30.7 31.0

Despite subpar shooting, WSU literally was able to stay in this one — and eventually win — primarily because of its rebounding, which allowed WSU to pile up 17 more field goal attempts than Stanford. SEVENTEEN! When you shoot poorly, that’s a massive difference. In the overtimes, 12 of WSU’s 22 points came after offensive rebounds. They needed those second chances to win.

The Cougars also shot much better on their free throw attempts than Stanford, which is surely what the Cardinal are regretting today. But Stanford probably would have won the game anyway — even with all those missed free throws — if they could have held their own even just a little on the glass.

They could not. And they lost.

By the way, you might remember late against USC, the ESPN crew asked “How is WSU down 2??” for the same reasons last weekend’s crew was marveling at Stanford — the Trojans were vastly outshooting the Cougars. The answers then were similar: WSU ended up with 16 more shots than USC because the Cougs owned the glass and had taken care of the ball better than the Trojans.

They didn’t win that one, but when we talk about this team “being gritty” and “finding ways to grind out results” ... this is how it happens. It’s not a mystery. It’s right there in the box score.

As for how they’re doing it? It doesn’t hurt that WSU is one of the tallest teams in the country — they rank 9th nationally in terms of the height of their players, weighted for minutes (via kenpom.com). They’ve got a pair of 6-10 guys playing the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt, a 7-1 guy coming off the bench, and a whole bunch of guards and wings that run 6-5 to 6-8.

But WSU has been tall all season, right? And they haven’t always been this good at collecting missed shots.

Something tells me that this has as much to do with purpose as anything else. The Cougars have made rebounding a part of their identity, and it’s not a coincidence that the improved performance on the glass took hold right about the time the team broke out of its six-game losing streak.