About Last Night: Cougs solve Stanford just in time

A big second-half run powers WSU to its 7th straight win.

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WSU 72, Stanford 59: Quick Recap

The Cougs earned their seventh consecutive victory — and kept pace with Arizona in the Pac-12 title race — by pulling away in the second half against a Cardinal squad that was feisty and motivated after getting whipped in Seattle on Thursday.

WSU improved to 20-6 overall and 11-4 in Pac-12 play, remaining just one-half game behind the Wildcats. They’ll face off on Thursday in Tucson, where a WSU win would give the Cougars the outright lead for the Pac-12 regular season title with four games to play.

Like a few other games during this streak, it wasn’t a work of art, but few games in conference are — especially the second time around, when teams make their adjustments. The Cougars pulled out to a 10-point lead midway through the first half, and it looked (and felt) as if WSU was going to cruise to a season sweep of Stanford.

Perhaps the Cougs felt it too and relaxed, because the Cardinal didn’t stop playing hard and ended up taking a 1-point lead into the break.

WSU trailed by as much as five early in the second half before finally getting it together. Down by 1 with 12 minutes left, WSU went on an 18-4 run over 8:33 to open up a 13-point lead with 3:36 to go. The Cougs never led by less than double digits the rest of the way.

In A Minute

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Isaac Jones with 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, 1 turnover.

  • One stat to tell the tale: 33% — Stanford’s percentage on 3s. The Cardinal came into the game shooting more than 42% from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play.

Highlights

Tourney Check

Not quite “lock” status, but at a 90.3% chance of earning an at-large bid (based on probable results the rest of the way), it’s getting damn close.

The Cougs also moved up to No. 34 in kenpom’s rankings and will almost certainly make their debut in the AP Poll on Monday — their first appearance since 2008.

Three Thoughts

1. Trap Avoided

As the Cougs trailed early in the second half, the game was starting to feel awfully trap-ish. It’s really damn hard to win as many games in a row as the Cougars have — even if other teams aren’t good, they still have talent, and that talent can overcome mediocre coaching and and bite you at any time1.

WSU wasn’t playing great. When we were in our zone, Stanford did a really good job of isolating our bigs — particularly Oscar Cluff — in the corner with Brandon Angel and Spencer Jones. Down by 1 with 10 minutes to go, our win probability stood at 65%, per kenpom.com.

But they found the adjustments and started playing better at the right time. We went away from the zone, rededicated ourselves to owning the glass, and our top guys came through with some buckets: When Isaac Jones finished off an 11-0 run with a ferocious dunk2 , any hope that Stanford had of pulling off the upset was extinguished. Now up 10 with 5 minutes to go, WSU’s win probability had soared to 97.5%.

It wasn’t a masterpiece performance. But the Cougs still beat a conference foe by double digits, even while playing less than their best. That’s good!

2. Giant Showdown

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Thursday’s game against Arizona is one of the biggest in the entire history of the program. I can’t tell you where it ranks, or how it stacks up for you with NCAA tournament appearances or whatever, but it’s hard to imagine one with bigger stakes.

I don’t know when the last time was that the Cougs were functionally tied for first place in the Pac-12 (as they were at the conclusion of their game) this late in the season. I don’t know when the last time was that they had the ability to play a game that would, with a victory, put them all alone at the top of the Pac-8/10/12.

I’m going to go with “never.” And to have it happen during this season, with the roster turnover and the backdrop of the breakup of the Pac-12?

The odds of beating Arizona are objectively low. Kenpom gives us a 16% chance of winning, barttorvik gives us a 14% chance, and each of them forecast a loss by double digits. Arizona is almost as hot as we are, will be playing at home, and has the added motivation of wanting to avenge their loss to the Cougs in Pullman.

Everything says we should lose this game, probably handily. But everything said the Cougs should be bad this year, and look at where we are. The college basketball world will be watching on Thursday.

I am so pumped.

3. Something To Keep An Eye On …

Sometimes, wins can paper over underlying problems. I don’t think the Cougs have many of them, but there is one to monitor.

In three of the last four games, WSU has turned the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions, and the other game was at 18%. The Cougs now rank 7th in the Pac-12 during conference play in that metric — at 16%. Stanford ranks last at 19%. This stretch has been really, really bad.

Piling up that many possessions where you don’t even get a shot up is usually disastrous for an offense. The Cougs, however, have been able to survive it. Against Oregon State, they hit more 3s than normal. Against Oregon, they simply leaned hard on their defense. Yesterday, they increased their shot volume by crashing the offensive glass and rebounding nearly half of their own misses.

All of that is great. But I doubt it’s sustainable.

Myles Rice has been the turnoverer in chief, averaging more than 4 TOs a game over this stretch. Part of that is simply his style of play — he’s going to be aggressive — but some of it is also just sloppiness, as it is for the rest of the team.

If I’m being completely honest, I think the Cougs have been OK over these four games because the opponents just aren’t that good. It’s great that the Cougs are good enough and talented enough to still win while giving the ball away at less-than-ideal rates. I’m not trying to rain on this parade. Because it’s definitely really, really good that we’re still winning!

But the competition level changes dramatically on Thursday.

Up Next

You know. Tip off is at 8 p.m. PT on Thursday. It’s on FS1.

Footnotes

1 Except for Benny Gealer. Truly have no idea how that young man was given a Pac-12 scholarship, but good for him to get that Stanford education paid for.

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