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Has Washington Turned the Corner?

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UW’s coming off back to back wins but is it sustainable?

Utah v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The 2020-21 Washington Huskies men’s basketball team is currently on a winning streak. If you had said that would happen to anyone that followed the team closely after the Dawgs were blown out at home 80-53 by Arizona they would have called you crazy. Heck, they might still have done so 2 weeks later following a 95-68 bludgeoning at the hands of USC.

However, in the 3 games since that point UW is 2-1 and the games were all tied within the final 5 minutes, even in the eventual loss at UCLA. Washington has managed to pull out consecutive games in which their win probability was at 15% within the final 7 minutes. If you’ve watched this team at all over the last year and a half you’ll understand why that’s confusing. Before last Wednesday night the last time the Huskies won a game decided by 5 or fewer points was the 2019-20 season opener against Baylor. They had been 0-10 over the past year plus since then.

The signs of progress were there at least on the offensive end prior to the two wins. Washington scored 5 points in the first 10 minutes of the game at Stanford. They rallied to finish with 75. That’s a 93 point pace. Even if we just use the total of 75, Washington has scored an average of 77 points per game over their last 6 compared to 60 over their first 8 games. It isn’t a strength of schedule thing either since they played 3 defenses during the most recent stretch that rank in the top-31 nationally in defensive efficiency compared to 2 in the period to start the year.

Is The Offense Sustainable?

The obvious thing to do to first answer this question is to look at the 3-point shooting. Washington is shooting 46% from deep over the past 6 games. That would pretty comfortably be #1 in the entire country if they could pull it off over an entire season.

Of course it’s not just that they started off the season on a hot streak. They gave us a full month worth of evidence before that they were not just bad but abysmal shooting the basketball. Coming into the game against Stanford the Huskies were shooting just 25% from deep as a team. Conversely, that would rank in the bottom 5 in the entire country right now.

The most likely answer is that the true version of this team is somewhere in between. When the Huskies were shooting 25% as a team there were a number of players all shooting below their career averages simultaneously. Unless the offensive structure was so broken as to render all of them useless it stood to reason that there would be a rebound.

But regression to the mean doesn’t guarantee that a player is going to start shooting well above their average in order to cancel things out. If a player’s true talent level is to shoot 35% and they shoot 25% over their first 100 attempts, we’d still expect them to make 35 of their next 100 shots rather than 45 to balance out the earlier below average shooting. Of course it’s still possible for them to make 45 of the next 100. It just doesn’t mean they’ll sustain that 45% pace anymore than they would sustain the 25% pace.

Given all of that it’s exceedingly likely that this team is playing a little above its head right now. Even when acknowledging that players aren’t robots. There’s a mental component to shooting and if a player gets inside their own head to overcorrect or passes up a good look because they’re afraid they’ll miss then it can hurt percentages.

WASHINGTON HUSKIES SHOT CHART, LAST 6 GAMES

Synergy Sports

The 3-point shooting is destined to come down a little but likely so too is the midrange shooting. The Huskies are nailing those pull up jumpers, runners, and floaters at a well above average rate. There are individual players on UW who I think are good at those shots but right now they’re shooting 50% on nearly 10 attempts per game in those 6 red areas away from the baseline and paint but inside the three-point line. It’s probably more realistic for UW to make closer to 40% of those shots moving forward which would take away 2 points per game. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s been almost the difference between a win and a loss in the recent stretch of close games.

Let’s zoom in on the micro for a moment though. The clear catalysts in the offensive revival have been the play of Jamal Bey and Erik Stevenson who are both shooting at least 47% on 3-pointers during the current 6 game hot streak. The play of Bey feels the closest to sustainable even if not quite at the level we saw from him on Sunday where he was almost perfect. Bey is shooting 10/13 on contested catch and shoot jumpers this season which is the best percentage in the country with at least that many attempts per Synergy Sports. He’s not going to keep nailing 3’s with a hand in his face or shoot over 50% overall from deep but with this confidence and his shooting stroke he could seemingly keep up a 40%+ pace.

The part that is more sustainable is Bey taking it to the hoop. He has had 11 post-up possessions so far this year and scored 12 points which is more efficient than the overall UW offense even during the recent hot streak. Bey has the ability to back down smaller guards who try to defend him and if he’s off the ball he’s been the best cutter on the team. Bey has played 87% of the team’s minutes over the last 6 games but the on/off court splits are still striking. The team has been an astounding 42 points per 100 possessions better with Bey on the floor over that stretch. Unfortunately, they’re still being outscored with Bey playing but they’ve been terrifyingly bad without him.

Erik Stevenson was the first player to fully pop off with his 27 points on 7/9 3-pt shooting against Cal. He was a 29% shooter at Wichita State but made just 4 of his first 23 attempts (17%) from deep for UW which suggested there was a likely rebound in his future. And it isn’t the first time he’s done this. Last season Stevenson went 5/23 on 3’s in his first 5 games before going 17 of 38 in his next 6 games. This season after almost the exact same start he has gone 18/38. Almost identical hot streaks.

Unfortunately, Stevenson closed last season with a similar cold patch hitting just 5 of his last 32 3’s in a Shocker uniform but with fewer games this year hopefully he doesn’t get to that point in his pattern again. He’s made just 20% of his uncontested catch and shoot jumpers so far this season so even if some of the wild looks start missing with greater frequency there’s a chance he can cancel it out by just making the easy ones. And one of Erik’s strengths last year was being able to finish around the basket. Recently he has hardly been able to buy a layup so that could help if the shooting turns cold.

Can the Defense Improve?

If the offense drops off even by just 5-10% then the defense will have to step up an equal amount to keep the team competitive. Up to this point the Huskies have played by far the worst defense of the Mike Hopkins era. Washington is giving up 115 points per 100 possessions in Pac-12 play so far. The last team to be worse than that over an entire conference slate was Wazzu in 2018 when they finished 278th nationally in defensive efficiency.

We can’t really use the same 6-game split when looking at the Husky defense. Washington has given up at least 79 points in each of their past 8 games. The Dawgs play at the fastest pace on offense in the conference right now which naturally increases the number of opponent possessions and consequently the number of points they give up. But even accounting for that they have not been good on the defensive end of the floor.

If we’re looking for trends let’s first start with the sprinkling in of man-to-man defense we saw this past week. I don’t entirely trust Synergy Sports to perfectly decide whether every half court possessions is man or zone but over the course of an entire game the trend is fairly clear. In Washington’s first 12 games they played zone on 90% of defensive half court possessions. Against Utah and Colorado last week that number dropped to 59%.

Now correlation is not causation. The Huskies weren’t exactly good on defense in those 2 games. The offense was more responsible for the win than the defense. But given that Washington won both when they were playing more man-to-man I would expect that we’ll continue to see more of it in the near future.

We’ll see how that plays out given that per Synergy Sports the Dawgs have the literal worst man defense in the country on a points per possession basis (347th of 347). They rank either last or next to last defending the pick and roll or cuts to the basket when playing man.

Where they’ve continually gotten roasted though is when the opponent decides to post up. The Huskies are giving up 1.18 points per possession per Synergy against post up attempts. Isaiah Stewart last year scored 1.11 ppp. Washington has somehow turned every opponent into a better version of Isaiah Stewart.

Nate Roberts as the starter deserves plenty of the blame for that mark. However it’s been particularly noticeable when Riley Sorn is out there as his agility and defensive instincts aren’t nearly as advanced as his height. There are signs that may be improving though. During the most recent 6-game stretch the Huskies are giving up 9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Sorn on the court versus off it and 5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Roberts is playing. The defense has been at its worst when trying to have J’Raan Brooks or Hameir Wright man the center spot as the lone big on the floor. And not coincidentally we’ve seen the number of those minutes shrink to nearly 0 since Brooks was cut out of the rotation recently.

The 2 games this season when the Huskies gave up more than 90 points were against USC and Stanford. Those teams are ranked #2 and #8 in the country in average height. The other 4 opponents the Huskies have played in their last 6 (all of which have been competitive) are between 93rd and 116th in that metric. I think it’s safe to say those teams didn’t have the kind of across the board length that makes it impossible for the Huskies to secure a defensive rebound which has been the defense’s biggest issue.

In the 3 games where the Huskies have played a team ranked in the top-20 in average height they’ve been outscored by an average score of 89 to 65. In their other 11 contests it was 74 to 68. That’s something worth noting considering that 6 of UW’s final 10 games come against taller teams (USC #2, Stanford #8, Wazzu x 2 #12 , Arizona #13, Oregon State #18).

Expectations Moving Forward

During their past 3 games Washington has moved from 147th to 134th at KenPom. That plus 2 wins in the standings means the Huskies are projected to now finish 5-14 in conference play with the chance that the COVID-postponed home game against Arizona State gets added to the schedule in that last week.

The only 2 games in which the Huskies are likely to be favored the rest of the way are the home tilts against Washington State and California who statistically are right with the Dawgs at the conference cellar. Road games against Washington State and Oregon State also look winnable but UW will likely be viewed as close underdogs.

Let’s say for a moment though that the team we’ve seen the last 3 games is much closer to the one we’ll know going forward than the team from the first 11 games. The blowout loss to Arizona is the only conference home game in which the Dawgs haven’t been at least competitive. Is it too big of a stretch to think the Huskies could knock off one of UCLA, USC, or Stanford at home considering how they’ve played at home and that they almost beat the Bruins in Westwood? Arizona State is 1-5 in conference with their lone win against California. They look beatable despite the inherent talent on the roster.

If everything absolutely clicked into place it seems doable for this team to finish out 5-5 or even 6-5 if they get to host Arizona State in a makeup contest. I’m not totally sold on that outcome. If I had to project the most likely scenario I would say 4-6 or maybe 5-6 if the extra ASU game happens. In that world Washington would go into a potential Pac-12 tournament likely as the #9 seed (10th but Arizona isn’t eligible) with an 8-17 (7-13) record.

Three weeks ago if you had polled most Husky fans I imagine that most would have wanted to see Coach Hopkins let go despite the hard to stomach buyout involved. If Washington loses out from here and finishes with 2 conference wins and 3 total (a reasonable scenario to imagine as recently as 12 days ago) then it’s hard to imagine much fan interest when they return or interest from recruits that could turn around the situation. Incoming 4-star Jackson Grant is a good player who will hopefully be the player we all wanted Hameir Wright to become but he isn’t going to singlehandedly transform the roster.

In order for the Huskies to again compete at the top of the conference they needed to have significant improvement either through internal development or outside addition. As of a few weeks ago it was tough to look at the roster and see much development. But now if the resurgences from Bey and Stevenson are real and if Roberts and Sorn continue to take baby steps with a leap from at least one of Tsohonis, Battle, or Bajema then suddenly this team has a chance to be competitive next year. Maybe not to realistically win the conference but at least to fight for a bubble spot.

That’s still a lot of ifs. And that’s not a very high bar. But it’s fewer ifs and a higher bar than at the beginning of the month so I’ll take that progress for now and see if that progress sustains through the next month.