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How well are the Cougs really playing? Well, about that defense …

Posted by Jeff Nusser on November 30, 2007

Welcome to our first real breakdown of the Cougs, something we’ll do from time to time as opportunity allows. The timing seems right to do one now, but bear with me — it’s a little long, but I think it’s worth your time to read it to the end.

Six games into the most anticipated season in the history of WSU basketball — and with the two toughest games of the non-conference schedule looming, starting tonight — I can’t possibly be the only Coug fan who felt a little uneasy about the lack of wide scoring margins against the mediocre competition. I mean, aren’t top 10 teams supposed to obliterate the Montanas of the college hoops world?

After three relatively close games against Boise State, Montana and Air Force, a lot of people around the country were asking themselves how good the Cougars really are. I think that’s the wrong question, given the lack of stiff competition. There’s just no way to accurately answer that question yet.

The right question is this: How well are the Cougs really playing?

Since I haven’t been able to watch this team yet (save for the season opener against Eastern), I don’t have a feel for how they’re playing together. So I decided to try and dig into some numbers to see if I could glean some sense of how they’re truly performing. Now, I’m not a stat geek who ignores the human element — teamwork, emotion and momentum all play a big role in basketball (especially the college version).

But I think we can learn a lot from numbers.

The first thing to note is this: Traditional statistical measures hardly cut it for this sort of analysis anymore. Any statistic that measures raw numbers rather than rates are inherently flawed and most of the time incredibly misleading. Statistics such as points per game scored and allowed are such poor measures of offensive and defensive effectiveness it’s almost laughable — and you’ll see why.

Instead, we’ll use measures such as offensive and defensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, brought to you here via Ken Pomeroy’s invaluable statistics site. (I’ll try to lay these different stats out there in a way that is simple to understand, but if you’re interested in learning more about Pomeroy’s stats, you can read about them here.)

First, efficiency, which measures points scored per 100 possessions. It’s a great stat, because if you think about it, the idea is to score each time you bring the ball up the floor, regardless of how many times you bring the ball up the floor. The more often you head the other direction having put points on the board rather than empty handed, the better your offense, right? Conversely, the less often your opponent brings the ball up and heads back with points, the better your defense. Tempo doesn’t skew this stat, unlike total points. For example, there is a very convincing argument out there that, contrary to popular opinion, North Carolina actually is a good defensive team.

Which brings us back to the Cougs. How well are they really playing? The answer is: Pretty well on offense, not so good on defense — probably a lot worse than you thought.

The Cougs’ offensive efficiency this season is 121.5, seventh best in the nation. That’s right, folks — WSU actually has the seventh best offense in the country through six games. Some of that can be chalked up to competition, but the reality is WSU has been above 111 in offensive efficiency in every game this year. For comparison, UCLA, Texas A&M and Gonzaga are all under 111 for the season.

A huge reason for this is that the Cougs’ have been going to the free throw line a ridiculous amount so far. While the raw numbers are gaudy — more than 24 free throws a game — the rate stats are even more telling, as the Cougs are third in the country in free throw rate (free throws made divided by field goals attempted). They’re not settling for jump shots; they’re taking advantage of inferior defenses, as they should be.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the defense has been peculiarly un-WSU like.

On the surface, everything is OK. The Cougs’ overall defensive efficiency is 82.3 — 13th in the country. If you take the No. 7 offensive rating and No. 13 defensive rating, it appears the Cougs are every bit deserving of that No. 6 ranking.

But if you isolate the three “close” calls WSU has had, it paints a pretty different picture. WSU’s defensive efficiency last season was 94.3 — nearly eight points below last year’s national average. BSU, Montana and Air Force combined to average a 103.9 efficiency — nearly four points above this year’s national average.

Not only have they been below average compared to their own standards, they’ve been below average compared to a national average defense.

Ouch.

Additionally, if the Cougs are so great defensively, they should be holding those teams below the way they normally perform. That wasn’t the case in two of those three games:

  • Boise State — Season average efficiency: 104.9; Efficiency against WSU: 110.5
  • Montana — Season average: 106.1; Against WSU: 96.0
  • Air Force — Season average: 101.5; Against WSU: 104.0

WSU wasn’t really in danger of losing any of those contests, but Tony Bennett was right when he observed that the defense just doesn’t seem to be clicking yet. What’s changed? Well, again, it’s tough to say without watching the team, but we can make some educated guesses.

First of all, their block percentage is way down. WSU actually was a very good shot blocking team last season — 25th in the nation in blocks per possession — thanks in large part to the tandem of Ivory Clark and Robbie Cowgill, who were both very adept at erasing shots after rotating from the weakside. With Clark gone, that piece is missing. Aron Baynes, despite his 6-foot-10 frame, isn’t a shot blocker.

Additionally, our biggest defensive weakness last year doesn’t seem to have gotten any better — opponents are still making lots of shots from behind the arc. Bennett’s defense will always be vulnerable to long range shots because of its emphasis on stopping penetration, but until this team gets longer (something the incoming recruits hopefully will do) it will continue to struggle on the perimeter defending 3s.

If we look at effective field goal percentage (essentially a stat that combines 2-point and 3-point percentages into one number; high eFG% signifies either an inordinate amount of 2-pointers or a large number of 3s making up for a low number of 2s), we find that in those three “close calls”, both Air Force (51.1) and Boise State (57.5) were above the national median of approximately 49 percent.

Is there anything major to be concerned about here? Not yet. Perhaps some of it simply has to do with uninspiring opponents. But if the defense looks less than spectacular on the road at Baylor and Gonzaga … well, it might be time to get a little concerned.

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3 Responses to “How well are the Cougs really playing? Well, about that defense …”

  1. […] How well are the Cougs really playing? Well, about that defense … […]

  2. Jo-Jo said

    I didn’t get to see the Baylor game, but looking at the game cast is seemed to be similar to the Boise State Game. With that in mind, here is my analysis on your thoughts.

    In the Boise State game the Cougs looked a bit lazy on their perimeter defense. But that can be changed. It is a decision, it is all about effort, and the Cougs cleaned it up in the second half.

    The other problem is foul trouble, which appeared to be and issue against Baylor as well. In my opinion foul trouble also comes down to laziness. Being lazy is how you pick up those stupid fouls. The Cougs are severely shallow in post defense and when you have to move Harmeling down as a post defender, you know that the other team is going to attack the basket. (This is where we need the German)

    But these things are fixable. Playing smarter on defense, and with the intensity to rattle the other teams cage in all about making the decision to do so.

    I think the one thing that has been exposed is that this team isn’t as deep as I thought. Last night Low and Weaver were in foul trouble and it seemed to really effect them. Against Boise State, Baynes and Cowgill were in foul trouble and it meant all the difference in that first half. Guys like Forrest and Koprivica are a good help for about 15 minutes a game, but the defense drops off dramatically when they are in the court, especially when they are on the floor together. Our studs need to stay on the floor.

    Lastly, don’t rule out the fact that teams are up for the Cougs. The Cougs are not sneaking up on anyone this year, and if I was the coach at Baylor I’d be telling my kids that this is a team that is ready to be upset. Sure the Cougs are bringing in high rankings but there is always a team, every year, that the whole nation isn’t convinced about, and is just waiting to watch them fall. Boise State shot the lights out in that first half. They were hitting shots that had no business going in the basket. I think that this is going to be something the Cougs will see a lot this year. I just think that other teams see the Cougs as a beatable high ranked opponent, and are looking to hang their hat on that victory.

  3. Nuss said

    I think you’re right about a number of things, but the biggest one is that this team is not deep. Tony Bennett has established a pretty clear eight-man rotation that is actually more or less a six-man rotation since Koprovica and Forrest are averaging just 13 and 11 minutes each.

    This team needed someone inside the program to step up and demand some minutes, and that just hasn’t happened. I think they hoped Abercrombie would do it, but he is not ready for primetime from what I’ve seen. Koprovica might still prove to be that guy. Remember how Rochestie came on the second half of last year after a major knee injury?

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