On WSU and the perils of CBB scheduling

The Cougs probably bit off more than they could chew this season, but also: Could you blame them?

Following the win over Stanford at home on January 14, there was a feeling that things might be turning for the Cougs. Beginning with a 10-point victory over USC and including a historic win over Arizona on the road, WSU had won four of five to raise their record to 9-10 overall and a push toward the postseason suddenly seemed like maybe it was within reach. While highly improbable. there was at least a path to the bubble that seemed like it wasn’t totally crazy.

Well, now the Cougs have dropped five of six and the only way they’re going to play themselves in to the NCAAs at this point is if they win the Pac-12 Tournament. Heck, they’re going to have to win their final six regular season games just to qualify for NIT selection — assuming the NIT would want a 16-15 team with an 11-9 Pac-12 record.

How we got to this point is pretty well understood in terms of the challenges WSU has faced with personnel, but there’s one factor that I think is being pretty criminally overlooked:

WSU has played a really, REALLY hard schedule this season!

My old friend, ESPN’s John Gasaway1, used to do a column every week called “Tuesday Truths,” in which he’d examine all the major conferences through the lens of efficiency margins in league games. When you subtract points per possession allowed from points per possession scored against opponents of relatively common quality, you get a pretty decent idea of whose records maybe aren’t telling the whole story.

Every once in a while, I get curious and jump on kenpom.com to check in on the efficiency margins in the Pac-12. By this point in league play, the records generally reflect the efficiency margins. But when we take strength of schedule into account, it gives us a little different lens through which to view those margins:

What immediately jumps out to me is WSU’s SOS2. It’s the hardest in the conference by a longshot, and while I don’t want to get too far into the weeds trying to explain it, that “+15.00” number means the average quality of WSU’s conference opponents has been a team roughly the quality of USC, which ranks 44th in kenpom with an adjusted efficiency margin of 15.083. It’s like if WSU played the third-best team in the conference 14 times.

Compare that to the conference median, which is about 11.25 — or a team roughly the quality of Arizona State, ranked No. 65. Colorado’s weakest-in-conference SOS is hilarious; 6.86 is a team roughly the quality of Stanford, ranked 96th.

Now, this eventually will mostly even out. WSU has played the top four teams in the conference eight times, played the next two teams each once (on the road!), and played the next team twice. They haven’t played Oregon State. They haven’t played Washington. And they’ve only played Stanford and Cal once. Thanks to sheer, dumb luck, the schedule backloaded all their easiest conference games: They’ll play all those teams in their final six games.

But I say it will “mostly” even out because even WSU’s two “extra” conference games — which took place in December — were against Utah at home and Oregon on the road. Compare that to UW, which got to play at Oregon State and host Colorado.

These guys truly couldn’t catch a break this year.

This might not have been as significant of an issue had the Cougs not played their most ambitious non-conference slate in nearly two decades. It currently ranks 49th at kenpom, just the second time they’ve played a top-100 slate since the site started tracking such things in 2001-024. Sometimes WSU wades into the 200s, but most often, they're in the 300s.

I’m sure if the coaching staff had it to do all over again, they’d have gone a little lighter on the non-conference games; choosing to add road games against Baylor and UNLV turned out to be pretty rough. It made sense at the time, though: Last season, WSU might have played its way into the NCAAs had there been more Quad 1 opportunities on the schedule, but the Pac-12 ended up down and those games were sparse. So, the coaching staff decided to add some of those chances in the non-conference schedule to try and bolster a potential tournament resume. Obviously, it backfired.

But some of the challenging non-conference schedule was just circumstance. They played a return trip to Boise State as part of a home-and-home when the Broncos happen to have their best team in Leon Rice’s 13 seasons there. Meanwhile, the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii initially looked to be a very winnable tournament, but they ended up playing what turned out to be an unusually strong Hawaii in the Rainbow Warriors’ own building before taking on Utah State (currently No. 40 in kenpom and squarely on the bubble) after the Aggies were upset in the bracket.

Even the lone cupcake on the schedule — Prairie View A&M — was played on the road, thanks to the Pac-12’s scheduling agreement with the HBCUs in the SWAC. Honestly, WSU would never schedule that game of their own free will, and you saw exactly why.

It all adds up to an overall schedule that currently ranks fifth(!) nationally at kenpom. That will drop a bit as the Cougs finish out the season against some lesser opponents, but still: In a season where WSU has faced some extreme challenges with injuries (and, last weekend, sickness), the schedule certainly didn’t make things any easier.

How different would you feel about this season if they’d played a typical non-conference schedule and emerged with three or four more wins? Visit this post on the web or on the Substack app to leave your thoughts in the comments!

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