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What Happened to the Huskies?

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Investigating the Factors in Washington’s Basketball Swoon

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

After a 14-point win over a talented UCLA team, UW was 9-0 in the Pac-12 and looking almost unbeatable in conference. Only Oregon had pushed them, and that was a game in Eugene that the Huskies still managed to pull out. The next weekend, UW wobbled for the first time in the conference with a loss to a quality ASU team in Tempe. The Huskies bounced back with wins over WSU, Utah, and Colorado and reestablished their defensive dominance. Since that point, the Dawgs have split their last four with the NorCal schools and the Oregon schools. Even the two wins were extremely difficult- a one point win at Stanford and an OT thriller over Oregon State.

What changed over that stretch to degrade the Dawgs from unbeaten to rubber-legged? Let’s look at what happened in each game to pull out any trends.

Cal def. UW 76-73

Washington’s first “bad loss” of the year was a failure at the defensive end, but the offense still played fairly well. The Dawgs scored at a rate that translates into 116 points per 100 possessions (Offensive Rating), slightly above their 107.4 ORTG for the year (104.1 is the national average). At 57% from two and 41% from three, UW actually shot quite well. The 17/11 AST/TO ratio was also very good.

The game broke down on the other end, where Cal scored almost at will. They shot 56% on twos, 54% on threes, and assisted an astounding 73% of their made field goals. On the year, the Huskies have given up assists on about 58% of opponents’ made FGs, which is already above average (typical for a zone team), so the jump to 73% puts that number through the roof. Meanwhile, Cal only turned the ball over 11 times (17.5% of possessions). One of UW’s great strengths is their ability to create turnovers- 23.9% of opponents possessions, fourth best in the country. Those numbers square with what viewers saw during the game. Cal executed offensively with good play design and excellent passing. Players made shots they usually miss, and the Husky defense looked a step behind for most of the game.

UW def. Stanford 62-61

After the Cal loss, the UW defense looked vulnerable for the first time in conference play. Would that trend continue in a difficult game at Stanford? No, not remotely. UW held the Cardinal to 87 points per 100 possessions, even better than the Dawg’s 92.9 average (19th in the country). The propensity to force turnovers returned with a vengeance, with 19 turnovers, good for 27% of Stanford’s possessions. Stanford put up roughly average shooting numbers- 42%/35%/60% from 2/3/FT- but the turnovers combined with a low assist rate doomed their overall offensive performance.

It was UW’s offense that was out of sync in this one. The Huskies’ 89 ORTG was well below their season average. Their shooting numbers were nearly a mirror image of Stanford’s, but their 42.5% shooting on twos was 10% worse than their season average. David Crisp shot 2/8 on the game and Noah Dickerson struggled to a 3/9 shooting performance. The team only totaled 7 assists on the game, which amounted to only 30% of their possessions. Did poor playmaking create difficult shots or did poor shooting limit the assist numbers? My impression of the game leans toward the former. Hameir Wright and Naz Carter led the team with two assists each. Crisp and Jaylen Nowell, the primary playmakers on the team, combined for one assist. Stanford deserves credit for forcing other Huskies to create offensively, but the Dawgs did not do a good job of adjusting when their top options were taken away.

UW def. Oregon State 81-76 in OT

The Oregon State game stands out on this list because the Beavers are a pretty good team and UW played reasonably well to get a win over one of their top conference challengers. Nonetheless, the home edition of this game was more difficult than the away one, so it warrants further investigation. Like the Cal game, this one belongs on the list because Oregon State scored more efficiently than most UW opponents with a 113 ORTG on the night. They shot well from three (44%), but with a relatively low volume of outside shots (only 18 attempts). The Beavers rebounded 39% of their own misses, which is even higher than the poor 34% the Huskies usually allow. Those offensive rebounds were a big part of what led Kylor Kelley to 16 points on eight shot attempts. Tres Tinkle was even better- 31 points on 20 shots, 8/11 from the line, and six offensive boards. Tinkle’s game is a perfect fit against a zone defense and he got hotter the longer the game lasted.

The Husky offense had a reasonably good game. They largely played to their averages, but shot better than normal from three, buoyed by 4/6 shooting by David Crisp. If there is a lesson to be learned from this game, it’s that Tres Tinkle is dangerous.

Oregon def. UW 55-47

The Oregon game is burned into all of our memories, partially because it was the most recent game and partially because it was one of those train-wreck scenarios that can’t be unseen. There were some small silver linings in the game. After two poor defensive performances in their last three, the Huskies held Oregon to an 86 ORTG. They forced 16 turnovers (25% of possessions) and limited Oregon to 4/22 shooting from outside. The Ducks’ 10 offensive rebounds were only good for 31% of their possessions, below UW’s usually rate of offensive rebounds surrendered.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The ugliness came when the Huskies had the ball. The 73 ORTG was far worse than any other game this year. The loss to Virginia Tech stands out as the game where the offense looked its worst in my memory, and even then the Dawgs managed 94 points per 100 possessions. The poor rating was a combination of horrific shooting (46% on twos, 15% on threes counting Elijah Hardy’s garbage time heave as one of three makes) and awful playmaking. No Husky tallied more than a single assist in the game and the team accumulated only four to go with 15 turnovers, good for a memorably bad .26 AST/TO ratio. With so many missed shots, there were opportunities on theg lass, but UW managed only four offensive rebounds, or 18% of their misses, which falls way below their 30% season average.

Oregon went very big with their lineup, essentially starting two PFs and two Cs next to Payton Pritchard. The size gave UW all kinds of trouble, especially since neither Sam Timmins nor Hameir Wright could do anything next to Dickerson. Even so, the Huskies handled big lineups by UCLA and Stanford earlier in the season without nearly the difficulty they had here. Option A for the Dawgs was for Nowell or Crisp to win off the dribble and finish or kick the ball out to an open shooter. The Oregon length made it difficult to finish in the lane and the spot-up shooters (Thybulle, Green, Carter) were hopeless. Option B was Dickerson in the post, and despite his ability to draw fouls, he struggled to turn those looks in to points.

Out of the four poor performances, two essentially boil down to bad offense and two to bad defense. One of the bad offensive games was largely an inability to create easy shots against Stanford’s defense. The other was a total breakdown against Oregon’s extended size. One of the poor defensive games looked like a combination of poor focus by UW and great execution by Cal. The other was a remarkable individual effort by Tinkle for Oregon State.

There are optimistic and pessimistic ways to look at these disparate variables. On the positive side, opposing teams haven’t “figured out” some fatal flaw that everyone can expose against the Huskies. They have shown recently that they still have the ability to excel both offensively and defensively, even if they haven’t put together both units in the same game. Sure, Oregon and Stanford both used good length on the defensive end, but “being tall helps at basketball” is hardly a novel takeaway.

Conversely, there’s no quick fix for Mike Hopkins and the coaching staff. There isn’t a play-calling or lineup tweak that will get the team back in sync. The same problems that have been there all year- poor offensive playmaking, questionable depth on the inside- are still there with no cure on the horizon. Hot shooting from Crisp and other-worldly defense from Thybulle masked these flaws for a stretch. If the Huskies are going to win the Pac-12 tournament or make a run in the NCAA tournament, they’re going to need to find someone to play above their established baseline, because the average version of this team still has plenty of flaws.