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Our strength has become our weakness

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 5, 2008

Author’s warning: This is a long post — nearly 1,400 words of analytical goodness. But I think it’s worth your while to read if you really want to know why this team isn’t as good as we all thought. It opened my eyes to a number of things as I was researching it, and I hope it resonates with you, too. Enjoy.

Ever since Dick Bennett arrived in Pullman five years ago, defense and WSU have gone hand in hand like, well, crimson and gray. Even if we couldn’t score as proficiently as we would like — remember the Thomas Kelati show that first year? — we always knew we could stop just about anyone.

But what if I told you the 2007-08 Cougs — the most ballyhooed squad in school history, the one that was ranked No. 6 as recently as two weeks ago — actually are nothing more than a below average defensive team? Would you believe me?

Before I prove such an audacious statement (and I will prove it), let me start with a little story.

Turn on any television broadcast featuring the Cougars, and you’re likely to hear this from the typically amateurish Fox Sports Net announcers during the pregame breakdown of each team’s strength:

“Washington State has one of the toughest defenses in the country! How stingy are the Cougars? They allow just 55.2 points per game — third in the nation! Amazing!”

Of course, if you’ve been reading this site for any amount of time, you know that points per game is one of the most inherently flawed statistics that exists. The amount of points a team scores — and allows — is heavily dependent on the number of possessions in any given game. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that scoring 70 points on 60 possessions (about what WSU averages) is a heck of a lot better than scoring 70 points on 75 possessions (about what a team like Duke or North Carolina averages).

If points per game is a lie, then the statistic that speaks truth is efficiency, which essentially measures the amount of points a team scores per possession. And let me tell you, when it comes to these Cougs that we had such high hopes for, you might not be able to handle the truth, because the truth paints a stark picture that doesn’t leave us with a lot of hope that things will get better this year.

Consider this: After nine Pac-10 games — where every team has played everyone else once — the Cougars are merely the sixth-best defense in the conference, posting a porous 105.6 defensive efficiency rating. They are giving up more points per possession in Pac-10 play than Stanford (93.4), UCLA (98.5), USC (100), ASU (103.4) and — hide your eyes — Washington (103.5).

That’s right, folks: The Huskies are a better defensive team than the Cougars. Let Armageddon ensue.

If it seems as if this is a severe departure from last season, your perception is correct. In 18 Pac-10 games last season, the Cougs’ defensive efficiency rating was 95.5 — second in the league. If your math isn’t so good, think about the difference between last year and this in this way: Last year, in a 60-possession game, the Cougs typically allowed 57 points; this year, in the same number of possessions, they allow 63.

Six points per game. That is not small. The offense has been everything it’s been billed to be — perhaps even better — but think about what a difference six points makes in any given game.

Now, this was a team that was supposed to be able to combine its ever-improving offense with stingy defense to make a deep tournament run. After all, the top 10 preseason ranking was based largely on the notion that this team lost just one player from a squad that finished second in the Pac-10 and was within a missed 3-pointer of the Sweet 16.

Problem is, that one player was more important to this team than anyone could have realized.

As I mentioned on Sunday, we like to believe that we’ve got better athletes in Pullman than most people give us credit for. And I think there’s some truth to that — the Cougs aren’t made up of a bunch of stiffs. But Derrick Low, Taylor Rochestie, Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes, Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest aren’t athletes on the order of Jarryd Bayless, Ryan Anderson, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Malik Hairston, Brook Lopez or James Harden. And that’s just the frontline guys from each of those squads; most of them have multiple teammates that are better athletes than our regulars, too.

What that means is that quite often, our players — with the notable exception of Weaver — cannot lockdown their opponents all by themselves. (And Weaver’s not always great at it, either.) Honestly, that hasn’t changed at all from last year; we’re dealing with the exact same personnel on the perimeter. What has changed is the absence of Ivory Clark, one of the better shot blockers in all of college basketball last year. That is not anecdotal perception of Clark’s skills. It’s a statistical fact.

Clark never really got widespread recognition for his shot-blocking ability last season, but he should have. He swatted nearly 8 percent of opponents’ 2-point shots while he was on the floor. That number might not seem very high, but it was good for 58th in the nation.

And if there’s anything that can cover a multitude of defensive sins, it’s a prolific shot blocker in the lane (just ask Mississippi State). I think that’s particularly applicable to WSU. Although our players can’t match up athletically with their opponents, they make them work hard for every inch they do get. If opponents have to work that hard and worry about their shot getting blocked, well, that’s a huge defensive advantage that the Cougs exploited tremendously last year. With Clark active around the basket, WSU blocked 13.5 percent of its opponents’ 2-point shots — 25th in the nation. That figure went up to 13.8 percent in conference play.

Quite simply, the Cougars’ defense was what it was last year because of its shot-blocking prowess.

And that’s the big difference from last year to this year. Opponents this season know that once they get past the first line of defense — and they know they can — there’s just very little stopping them from getting all the way to the cup. WSU is blocking just 7.8 percent of opponents’ shots in Pac-10 play, with Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes ranked in the 220s in block percentage. Of course the Cougs know this, too, so they do their best to stop opponents from getting to the rim with help defense, leaving 3-point shooters wide open on the wings.

Think about what a difference that 6 percent in block rate between last year and this year makes. WSU opponents average 38 2-point shots a game; that 6 percent equals between two and three more blocks a game, to say nothing of the other 2-pointers that get altered. Additionally, it allows perimeter defenders to stay closer to their man, because they know there’s help around the basket.

Teams in the Pac-10 have recognized this difference and exploited it tremendously. The Cougars have been forced to pick their poison this year, and they’ve been killed by it more often than not in conference play.

And in all honesty, the conference is probably part of the issue right now. The Pac-10 is absolutely loaded, and as I mentioned Saturday, a lot of these weaknesses probably would be masked if the Cougs played in the Big East or Big Ten. If they were a mid-major, they’d be in the top five in the polls right now, because those are precisely the kinds of teams the Cougs can stop — just look at that defensive performance against Gonzaga, in which they held the Bulldogs to a 75.8 efficiency rating.

Unfortunately, the Pac-10 is loaded with the kinds of teams the Cougars are going to face from other major conferences in the tournament — teams with athletic guards and excellent shooters. Those teams are going to keep the Cougs from making the deep run we all thought they could make.

Does this make the Cougars a bad team? Heck no. This is still a very good team, one that can rightfully set its sights on the Sweet 16. People talking about WSU not making the tournament are crazy. This team won’t collapse, and that’s what it would take to keep the Cougs out.

But a personnel issue at this point in the season is virtually unfixable. Unless Baynes and Cowgill suddenly become powerful shot blockers or every other player gets quicker, this just isn’t a team that can win the Pac-10 or make a run to the Final Four, save for a stunning series of fortuitous circumstances in the tournament that provide favorable matchups.

I’m not beyond hoping for luck to help us. I’m just not counting on it.

Here’s to hoping the offense can carry us.


9 Responses to “Our strength has become our weakness”

  1. Michelle said

    stop serving us cold doses of reality! I’m perfectly content with thinking we are the best defensive team in the country!!

    ok, seriously…thanks for shedding light on this topic, I just hope at the end of the season, everything you just wrote will be inaccurate and we will be the best again 🙂

  2. Nuss said

    Believe me, no one hopes I’m wrong more than me, and I’m going to cheer as if it is going to change. But I think knowing the truth about what’s really wrong here — and how it’s not scheme or effort — will make watching them a lot more palatable the rest of the season. Rather than being disappointed every time they fail to live up to our overinflated expectations, we can enjoy the times that they exceed more realistic projections.

  3. Jo~Jo said

    Well, Nuss, this was the thing we all worried about at the end of last season. Everyone was comming back accept for the most athletic guy on the team. This is where the recruiting needs to fill a hole. I think they’ve found some sound players, but when it comes down to it this team needs some jumping jacks. Even Kojo Mensa-Bonsu would help at this point.

  4. Ptowncoug said

    Is James Watson our savior next year? 6’8″ 205! He is one yr too late! My concern is whether the coaching recognized the huge whole or did they plan to move in a different direction with personnel. I don’t believe Boehke is a shot blocker, though tall, and Henry has been consistently injured to help out at all.
    I was a bit bothered by last year’s class and the failure to land a true leaper, maybe a JC guy who could fill an immediate hole. Sure Lodwick is good and can jump, but his build is not like Clark’s. You need a guy like Mata who is a beast and is there to simply play defense and block shots. It’s hard to believe there isn’t more guys out there like him.
    I think we played one of our better defensive games against Stanford and Baynes played less. His foot speed hurts us, especially when we don’t have a Clark to come in from the back side and save the day.
    I be interested in a starting lineup that has Cowgill, Harmeling (or Forrest), Weaver, Low and Rochestie with Baynes coming off the bench. I think teams are to agressive early with us and it hurts us because of lack of team quickness.

  5. Nuss said

    Here’s the problem with having Baynes on the bench, though: He is far and away the team’s best rebounder.

    He grabs 13.3 percent of the available offensive rebounds when he’s on the floor and 21.7 percent of the available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor. Those figures are sixth and seventh in the conference, respectively. That latter figure is nearly identical to Jordan Hill, just behind Marty Leunen, and actually ahead of Brook Lopez, Taj Gibson and Jeff Pendergraph.

    The problem, of course, is that he can’t stay on the floor long enough for the rebounds to pile up the way they should. But this team needs him on the floor. I wish there was some way to find out defensive efficiency when each player is in the game; I’d be curious to know if there is some correlation to certain players.

  6. Plaster said

    Hey Nuss,

    Great breakdown. I’m always pleased when my Google Reader shows that you have new posts up.

    Long time, no talk. Hope you’re well.

    — Plaster

  7. Nuss said

    Thanks, Mike! Good to know you’re around reading. Just trying to stay warm here in the deep freeze.

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