As I sit down to write this debrief of the last week of Washington State Cougars basketball, I can’t help but feel a little bit like I’m grasping at straws to try and figure out what is driving the Cougs’ current state of affairs.
Particularly striking is the manner in which the Cougs lost to the Washington Huskies on Saturday. Given what each team had done leading up to the game, kenpom.com predicted UW would score 65 points in the entire game; WSU gave up 50 points in the second half alone to blow yet another halftime lead.
It wasn’t just that the Huskies scored 50 — something they had not done in a half all season — they did it in just 34 possessions against a defense that had spent most of the conference season leading the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. Before playing UW twice, the Cougars were allowing just about 0.90 points per possession to league opponents. Before Saturday’s game, kenpom.com expected WSU to allow 65 points to UW. It was a disastrous defensive performance.
I don’t want to completely overlook the win on Wednesday in Pullman, which was fun in ways that I already wrote about. But we all, of course, are prisoners of the moment, and like the rest of you, I’m stuck on the crappy feelings of this particular loss.
My first gut reaction is to blame the schedule. Perhaps their legs are giving out? They’ve now played seven games in 16 days, two more than originally scheduled. Over that time, they’ve traveled from Pullman to Eugene to Pullman to Los Angeles to Pullman to Seattle (and now to Corvallis for tonight’s game against Oregon State). As Smith pointed out on one of his coach’s shows, it’s important to remember these guys aren’t professionals; they still have to go to class and do homework in the midst of all this travel.
And the competition has been stiff. Six of those seven games have been played against teams in the top half of the conference, including two rivalry games. The defense has generally been good over that stretch — as we all know, scoring has been the main problem — but the sustained energy required to play the kind of defense WSU usually plays is significant. And WSU isn’t playing its superior defense with a bunch of superior athletes, with the notable exception of the rim protectors; a large part of what makes the Cougars good are smarts and effort.
There’s a bit of a statistical case for this, as well. Defensive points per possession have ticked up at the tail end of this stretch that has torpedoed their NCAA at-large hopes, underpinned by bit of a a decrease in turnovers forced and an increase in opponents’ trips to the free throw line. These aren’t ironclad trends by any means — correlation/causation etc. — but these are potential indicators of energy levels that are heading in the wrong direction.
Yet ... it’s hard to point only to this when we’ve seen variations of this play out so many times before. I don’t doubt that there are some tired legs at play here. But it just seems reductive.
There’s clearly a lot more at play here than just one thing, and because of that, it’s tough for me to divvy up the blame pie.
I think what I’ve settled on is that there are just a bunch of things that needed to be just a bit better this season. The players needed to be just a little more efficient, particularly on offense, and maybe just a little bit tougher. The coaches needed to push the right buttons more often than they have, whether through play design (can we scrap the zone already?) or personnel choices (why are we always playing two miniature guards??). The team needed to be a little bit healthier. Opponent shooting luck needed to be just a little bit more normal.
Really, there isn’t anything that has been quite good enough to realize the promise that this roster has showed from time to time, and it’s possible this is just a function of a collection of players that are still relatively young on the whole. That’s not a very fulfilling conclusion when looking for a scapegoat, but sometimes it’s just like that. And yet! Despite all that, there is still a solid opportunity in front of them with Oregon State up twice in the next four days, and then Oregon at home on Saturday.
Win all three, and WSU could push as high as a tie for fourth in the conference. I’m not going to go try and figure out tiebreakers — if it worked out, they’d be in a three-way tie with the Ducks and Colorado, and I’m just not up for the kind of time investment it would take to figure out which team gets the Pac-12 tournament bye — but even without the bye, it would be a nice symbolic feather in the team’s cap: Even in the face of everything that hasn’t seemed to go right this season, they’d have finished higher than every WSU team since Tony Bennett’s second NCAA team in 2008.
Two of those three games should be foregone conclusions; Oregon State hasn’t won a game December. But the Beavers will be thirsty for a win — they damn near got one against USC on Thursday — and they’ll be at home and if the Cougs really are road weary, then tonight might be a much tougher challenge than we assume.
But winning all three is an eminently obtainable goal, and it sure would inject a much needed dose of fun into a season that has too often tilted toward disappointment.