About Last Night: Cougs get a signature win over Arizona

We are SO back.

Good morning. As time allows for the rest of this season, I’ll whip up some quick thoughts on the previous night’s game.

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In what was quite possibly Arizona’s final trip to Pullman, the Washington State Cougars sent the No. 8 Wildcats (and their football team’s worth of staffers) back to Tucson as losers with a 73-70 victory on Saturday at Beasley Coliseum.

The victory was noteworthy not just because it was, well, a victory (kenpom.com gave the Cougs about a 15% chance of winning the game), but also because WSU led for the vast majority of the contest, pushing the lead up to 11 early in the second half, while not even really playing an A+ game.

The Wildcats were constantly fighting to get over the hump, and as you would expect, they walked down the lead until finally taking a two-point lead with five minutes to go. But even as Arizona finally overtook them, the Cougs refused to fold, seizing the lead back two minutes later on a Myles Rice three. Despite Caleb Love’s best efforts, the Cougs never gave the lead away again.

The Cougs improved to 12-5 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12 — and most importantly, have played themselves back into a position where a legitimate NCAA tournament push is in the realm of possibility.

In A Minute

  • CougCenter recap

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Isaac Jones with 24 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal … and somehow that doesn’t seem to do justice to the impact he had on the game.

  • One stat to tell the tale: Arizona is the top team in the Pac-12 at making 2s, coming into the game over 55%. WSU held the Wildcats to 18 of 48 — 37.5%.

Highlights

Three Thoughts

1. Players make plays

Kyle Smith’s teams have developed a bit of a rep over the years — fairly or unfairly — for struggling to finish games. But down the stretch of this one, the Cougs simply made play after play after play after play. After Arizona took that two-point lead, WSU had nine possessions — and scored on all of them for a total of 18 points over the final five minutes. The only shot they took that didn’t go in was a Rice free throw. (The Cougs made their other five attempts from the line.)

And it wasn’t like it was a free throw parade as Arizona played the foul game; most points came on legit buckets as the Wildcats continued to come at the Cougs. There were free throws, but it was the result of Arizona trying to pressure the Cougs into a mistake, and WSU refused to yield.

Most of the damage in that final stretch came from Jones (6 points, 2 rebounds — including the one that iced the game) and Rice (8 points), but Jaylen Wells also had a huge midrange jumper and a pair of ice-cold free throws. When you’re playing a team like Arizona, you know they’re going to have the Dudes to make a hard push at the end. Yesterday, it was Love, who scored 11 points over the final six minutes. The question is, do you have guys who can make a play when you need it?

This team does, with Jones. He’s able to exert his will on a defense on the interior, which is a potent weapon. I’m not sure Rice and Wells are at “exert their will” levels (yet), but they both definitely have That Dog in them and are unafraid of the moment.

2. Back in the conversation

With the win, WSU has now pulled itself back to exactly 0.0 Wins Above Bubble — meaning, they’ve assembled (roughly) the resume of a bubble team. Now, the bubble is a moving target in any given year, and barttorvik.com still projects the Cougs’ chances at only 6%. But that’s a lot better than the 0.2% it was after losing to Oregon! Bart’s algo now projects us — remember, this a projection of the end of the season, not what it is right this second — as the 10th team out of the field, which means we’re now basically back to baseline from where we started Pac-12 play.

Only now, the Cougs have a signature, Quad 1 win in their back pocket.

3. Some love for the … zone?

The Cougs once again played zone for the vast majority of the game on defense, and it’s looking more and more effective. As you know by now, it pains me to say that, as I’m an adherent to the Bomani Jones “Zone Is For Cowards” mantra, but it looks like they’re doing the one thing I really wanted them to do: Settle on a defensive identity.

Playing primarily zone, WSU held the fifth-ranked offense on kenpom to just 1.01 points per possession. By barttorvik’s estimation, that’s like holding an average team to 0.88, which would be absolutely dominant. That’s how we need to view yesterday’s defensive performance: As flat dominant. Arizona did get a bunch of offensive rebounds — grabbing 42% of their own misses — but that doesn’t actually worry me that much. Yes, you’re going to give up more of them in zone. That’s a fact. But also, Oumar Ballo was responsible for eight of them, and he’s a special kind of rebounder that we won’t see again in Pac-12 play until the next time we play Arizona; there were numerous times he was ostensibly “boxed out” and he still got the board. He’s on a planet all by himself, grabbing 19% of his team’s misses in Pac-12 play. The next closest is 14%, and the guy after that is 12%.

I think it’s telling that with Ballo largely on the bench down the stretch — he couldn’t be counted on to make his FTs — the Wildcats only got two offensive rebounds in the final six minutes, both of them coming on one possession off of funny bounces. That’s a trade off you can make when you’re stopping shots at the rate the Cougs are.

I'll never love a zone. But it appears WSU has settled on it as their primary defense, and the growth is starting to show.

Up Next

Win the next two — at Stanford and at Cal — and you’re really starting to cook.

The Cougs travel to Stanford on Thursday in what kenpom projects as a coin flip game. The Cardinal aren’t good, ranked about 20 spots below the Cougs, but they do have a home win against … Arizona. By 18(?!?) points. That said, they’re 2-7 in their other games against the kenpom top 150, pending the outcome of today’s home game against Utah.

Tip off will be at 8 p.m. PST on Pac-12 Network.

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