The Washington State Cougars lost a bummer of a game to the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday night, and for at least the second time this season, a large number of fans rushed to their phones and keyboards to declare WSU’s NCAA tournament chances dead.
For starters, that’s not even remotely true. I’ll agree that it’s improbable that the Cougars will win enough over their final eight-plus games of the season to secure an at large berth to the Big Dance, but it’s certainly still possible, and it likely won’t even take a ridiculous set of results, like winning out or something, to get the Cougars back into serious conversations about an at-large bid. I’m not entirely sure why so many people are insistent on framing it otherwise.
I know it’s hard not to be a prisoner of the moment. There’s no denying that the loss to ASU was pretty ugly: Scoring 0.85 points per possession while shooting 30% from the field is discouraging, particularly in the larger context of some of the offensive troubles that have popped up this season, and also because it came on the heels of not really being competitive against Arizona on Thursday.
For what it’s worth, I honestly wouldn’t read a damn thing into the Arizona loss. The Wildcats are absurd. They’re probably the best team in the conference since 2014 or 2015, when Arizona secured 1 seeds under Sean Miller, and playing them to a 12-point loss right now isn’t actually bad, given that, outside of their road loss to UCLA, nobody has been within 9 points of them in any of their other 12 conference games — including the second time around against the Bruins. They are demolishing everyone right now, and kenpom says they’re the second best team behind Gonzaga. That seems right to me.
However, there’s a strong argument to be made that we really shouldn’t read too much into the ASU loss, either. Consider:
The offense gets a lot of stick for missing shots, or taking shots that people consider suboptimal — the “all they do is run around and jack up 3s” criticism — but when you take into account the kinds of shots each team took in this particular game (as ShotQuality does), a comfortable WSU win would have been expected. Instead, WSU missed a lot of quality looks — open threes, layups, etc. — while ASU hit a bunch of difficult shots at a higher rate than you’d expect.
For example: Over the final 17 minutes of the game, ASU took nine shots classified by the stat keeper as 2-point “jumpers.” Many of those shots were post-ups and floaters, but those still are shots that are generally converted at a rate of less than 50%, meaning you’d typically expect them to make four or five of those nine, particularly against WSU’s interior defenders. Instead, ASU made seven of them. Meanwhile, WSU missed three layups and four “jumpers” over the same stretch.
This variance was the difference in the game.
Also impressive you noticed this without a lot of 3pt variance. Shooting luck isn’t always just missed 3’s pic.twitter.com/COA4tW6ENt— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) February 13, 2022
I’m well aware that this kind of analysis is a turn-off for some, because either the team wins or it doesn’t, and they didn’t, and that sucks, AND DON’T TELL ME THAT IT DOESN’T SUCK, NUSSER. I’m really not trying to convince you that you should feel good about this weekend’s results. It does, indeed, suck, and it definitely doesn’t help the team’s potential tournament resume.
But if we’re trying to figure out what’s possible in the future, it’s a heck of a lot more useful to look at process. After all, WSU was left for dead by many after losing five of seven from mid-December to mid-January, only to climb right back into Joe Lunardi’s first four out after ripping off five wins in a row and surging into fourth place in the conference. They surged because WSU actually was a better team all along than a lot of fans thought because they overvalued a bunch of fluky losses, never mind the fact that the opponents were better than casual fans understood.
To that end, I think a lot of people are overvaluing the ASU loss, too. Arizona State isn’t good, but they certainly have some talented, Pac-12-level players — players talented enough to beat UCLA a week ago. And, from a process perspective, we played well enough to win comfortably. Nobody likes to hear it, but sometimes you just lose dumb games like that, particularly in conference play. If this was the NBA, fans would just be like “welp that sucked” and move on to the next game because these things just happen in a sport where shooting variance plays a role.
Of course, this isn’t the NBA’s 82-game season, it’s a 30-game college season, and time is quickly running out on putting together enough wins to get the committee’s attention. I understand the urgency felt by our fans, but I just would caution — again, for the umpteenth time this season — against allowing the bad vibes of a weird loss have too much weight when you think about what’s realistic moving forward.
Even with the loss to ASU, WSU’s results would suggest they’ll pick up a win from this week’s slate of Quad 1 road games against Oregon, UCLA, and USC: kenpom.com’s cumulative probability from the trio is 99%. If they can somehow pull off two of those, they’ll not only be right back on the bubble, they’ll probably start appearing as a 12 or 13 seed in a bunch of bracket projections next weekend.
Obviously, you can’t count on winning two of three. I’m not saying it’s likely. But if you’re telling me they’ll probably win one — and the projections suggest they will — it’s not too big of a stretch to think they might be able to get another. I think we match up well with all three teams, and we probably should already have a win against the Trojans. Then you throw in the fact that we won at Oregon last year, and it’s hard to beat a team twice ... it’s really not insane to think it could happen.
I’ll even go this far: If they win just one this week and then win out to finish the regular season, I think that is probably even enough to put them under serious NCAA tournament consideration heading into the conference tournament, where they’ll likely be the 4 seed.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll just say this: People argued with me a couple of months ago when I said winning six of eight to start the main portion of the conference schedule would get them back on the bubble, and yet, that’s exactly what happened. I’ve been paying close attention to college basketball for a very long time, and, in much the same way that our fans overvalue the impact of losses, our fans also constantly oversell the resume needed to get into the 68-team field. When you get down to the eight or 10 teams that will be under consideration for the final four or five spots, they all will have significant warts.
This is why I don’t really understand the constant rush to judgment with this team. Is it a desire to insulate yourself from potential disappointment? Like, if you thought all along that it was possible for them to make it, and then they don’t, you’re going to be heartbroken ... but if they somehow “rise from the dead” you can just be happy about it? It’s an earnest question, because I really don’t get it.
The state of the program should get fans excited — full stop. No qualifications. By any objective measure, this is the best team we’ve had in a decade. In three years, Kyle Smith has transformed the program from the worst in the Power 6 — again: THE WORST IN THE POWER 6 — into a bubble-ish squad. The Cougars ranked 186th or worse via kenpom.com in each of the six seasons preceding his arrival, and they ranked 127th and 78th at the end of his first two seasons, and they now rank 46th two-thirds of the way through his third — their highest mark since 2011. At a place like Washington State, that’s absolutely remarkable.
Dick Bennett’s third team ranked 99th, going 11-17 and 4-14 in the Pac-10. Tony Bennett’s third team ranked 49th, going 17-16 and 8-10. There were no kenpom ratings back when Kelvin Sampson and George Raveling were at WSU, but Sampson’s third team was 7-22 (and 1-17) while Raveling’s was 10-16 (and 1-13).
And yet, there are some who would like to make these losses some sort of referendum on Smith’s coaching ability? C’mon.
I understand people have complaints about the offense, and I won’t try and tell you that’s it’s good. Smith might not be an offensive genius, but the offense has improved each year (despite losing its best player at the end of each season); up until this weekend’s turds, the offense was middle-of-the-pack in the Pac-12 on a per-possession basis in conference play. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad, either.
The Cougs also have had a borderline-elite defense for two years running, a fact that doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves.
But this is the absolute best part: There’s every reason to think this particular group is still ascending. Projections can be tricky as dynamics change, and linear improvement expectations are always dangerous, but Michael Flowers is the only sure loss on the roster. The Cougs are loaded with talent, including at least a couple of guys who will land on NBA rosters at some point. And this is before reinforcements are added this offseason.
That’s why it baffles me how some people look at all this and find themselves disappointed with the team. Smith tried all along to downplay NCAA expectations, and while I was excited about the possibility of making the NCAAs — my podcast co-host and I both predicted it would happen because we’re fans, and it’s way more fun to dream — we also repeatedly cautioned about expecting that, saying the Cougs would have to make a pretty huge jump to get there. We’re seeing that play out now.
If you’re disappointed by a team that is on pace for its best record and best Pac-12 finish in at least 11 years ... well, I don’t think it’s the team’s failure to meet whatever lofty expectations you placed on it.
Some of the beauty of college sports is supposed to be the fun in watching the ebbs and flows of a program as players are added and develop before they move on to the next phase of their lives. I’m a little bummed out that the margin for making the tournament is getting smaller and smaller, only because making the tournament is so rare for us, but I’m not fixating on that. I’m choosing to enjoy this process, partially because we’ve been robbed of any kind of fun for far too long, but also because these guys will move on at some point and I know I’ll regret it if I don’t properly appreciate them while they are here.