About Last Night: Cougs lose to ASU, give 1st place right back

Well, that certainly was a bummer.

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No. 21 WSU 61, Arizona State 73: Quick Recap

For the first time in 35 days, we are bummed out after a WSU men’s basketball game, as the Cougars saw their eight-game win streak snapped in Tempe. The loss drops WSU to 21-7 overall and, more importantly, 12-5 in the Pac-12 … and once again a half-game behind Arizona for the league lead.

The final margin belies the nature of the game a little, I think. It certainly wasn’t back-and-forth in the way that Thursday’s game at Arizona was, but ASU didn’t have control from start to finish either. There were a number of times the Sun Devils stretched out a sizeable lead, only to see the Cougars battle back — falling behind by 12 in the first half before closing it to just 1, then falling behind 9 just before halftime only to regain the lead early in the 2nd half, then falling behind by 8 again only to close it to 2 with just under 7 minutes to go.

At that point, the Cougars ran out of gas, getting outscored 16-6 the rest of the way to provide the final margin.

It was, objectively, WSU’s worst game in months: Their Game Score at barttorvik of 31 was their second lowest of the season and their lowest since posting a 36 at Utah. Only their 19 against Santa Clara was worse.

After weeks and weeks of playing like a top 15 team, they played like the 260th-ranked team yesterday.

Three Thoughts

Normally, I give you some other nuts and bolts first, but after yesterday’s mess, let’s get right to the analysis.

1. Was It A Trap?

That word has been bandied about a lot in the wake of the loss. I guess it depends on how you define “trap.” If your definition is something like “anytime you lose to a lesser opponent in the immediate wake of a massively important game,” then sure — it was a trap.

For me, I tend to mitigate a little with, “was the team up for it?” Your mileage may vary on this, but I do think the Cougs were up for ASU. Sometimes you just lose.

There certainly was a bit of a lack of focus early on — the Cougs just weren’t sharp, turning the ball over 5 times in the first 4 minutes. There’s no denying that. But they also weren’t sleepwalking through the game, and clearly were giving the requisite effort — at least to my eyes.

Consider: The game featured five separate runs where one of teams outscored the other by 10 points in a stretch. A couple of times, they were back to back!

  • ASU went on an 18-2 run from 17:51 to 10:32 (first half) to take an 18-6 lead, but WSU answered back immediately with a 12-1 run from 10:14 to 7:45 to close the gap to 19-18.

  • After ASU pushed the lead back up to 9 with a 17-9 stretch, WSU posted an 11-0 run that spanned the break from 0:27 in the first half to 15:49 in the second half to take the lead, 38-36. But ASU answered back immediately with a 12-2 run from 15:12 to 12:25 to push the lead back out to 8.

  • The Cougs chipped away to get it down to 2 with 6:45 to play, but ASU finished them off with a 12-2 run from 5:36 to 1:58.

Visually, it looked like this in the win probability. There were those peaks where it felt like, OK, this is where we finally assert ourselves and win. But ASU answered every time:

That doesn’t look to me like a team that overlooked its opponent; this looks like a team that just didn’t have it. They fought back repeatedly, largely behind the effort of Jones. They cleaned up all those early turnovers. They played hard. They just didn’t have enough in their bag in the end: When the game was in the balance over the final 5 minutes, they didn’t make the shots, they didn’t get the rebounds.

Two things stick out to me on that front. The first is that the Cougs were 3-of-18 from 3, easily their worst performance in months. During the win streak, they shot 38% or better from 3 in five different games; the last time they shot less than 30% from 3 was against Utah in Salt Lake City.

Tired legs?

Another thing I noticed was that during ASU’s 11-0 run to put it away, there were a couple of times where the Cougars appeared in position to grab an offensive rebound. They didn’t get them. There also was a defensive possession where they looked like they should get a defensive rebound, and they gave up the offensive board — and ASU scored.

Tired legs.

Was it a result of the emotional and physical exertion of the win over Arizona? It probably had a lot to do with it. But WSU’s starters also have played a ton of minutes this season, and something like that seems most likely to catch up with you on the back end of a road trip, regardless of the first game.

And sometimes, good teams lose to worse teams, especially on the road. Oregon State has wins at home over both Arizona and Colorado. Stanford has a win over Arizona, too, at Maples. Cal has beaten Oregon and Colorado in Haas. Seemingly everyone has beaten Utah at home.

I know that “it happens” isn’t very satisfying, especially in the immediate wake of the euphoria of Thursday. To take control of the conference race and then immediately give it right back to Arizona within 48 hours really, really, really sucks.

But … it happens.

2. A Failure of Will

It’s been quite a while since WSU has been unable to exert its will and force its style on an opponent. A high school coach friend of mine who hasn’t watched WSU much this year remarked after the Arizona win how amazed he was that the Cougars were able to dominate the interior to such an extent against the Wildcats. Throughout this long win streak, we’ve forced everyone else to match us.

That wasn’t the case yesterday. ASU’s quickness caused so many problems for us defensively that Kyle Smith was left grasping at straws, looking for a solution. He tried a plethora of lineup combinations, but the most telling move was this one: Oscar Cluff — the man who has been the glue on both ends during this run of wins — played just 12 minutes. Cluff struggled mightily to keep up with the Sun Devils, scoring just 3 points with a couple of offensive rebounds, a couple of assists … and 3 turnovers.

WSU was minus-13 in Cluff’s 12 minutes, which I say not to single him out — he was far from the only player who wasn’t great — but to illustrate just how difficult it was for the Cougars to play the way they want to play.

3. Keep It In Perspective

Of course we wanted to win both games. But getting road sweeps in this conference is super duper hard — friend of the podcast Jamey Vinnick at Cougfan said that road sweeps have occurred only four times in the Pac-12 this season: Oregon (at the Washingtons) early in the season, and then Arizona (at the mountain schools), UCLA (in the bay), and us (at the Oregons) — weirdly all on the same weekend a couple of weeks ago.

“It's hard on the road,” Smith said during the postgame radio interview. “It’s a little bit like the Cal game after we had a good win against Stanford on there. You get a split on the road, it's good. You’ve got to keep things in perspective that way.

“We got an altitude (after beating Arizona) that maybe we weren't prepared for, and there's a lot of attention and comes with the territory and you got to learn to deal with it. Hat tip to them, they played a good ball game and just wanted it a little more, I think.”

If we could only get one game out of these two, I choose Arizona 100 times out of 100. Beyond the obvious emotional satisfaction of sweeping the Wildcats in their last season in the Pac-12, it’s also the more practical result: We still own the tiebreaker over Arizona if they slip up (and they play three of four on the road to finish out the year), and road wins over great teams do way more to benefit your NCAA tournament resume than road losses to bad teams do to hurt it.

In A Minute

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Isaac Jones with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 1 turnover in 32 minutes.

  • One stat to tell the tale: 11 — offensive rebounds for ASU, representing 34.4% of the Sun Devils’ misses. They are the worst offensive rebounding team in the conference, typically grabbing around 20%.


Tourney Check

Honestly, not much of a difference — went from the last 5 seed here to the last 6 seed.

As we said, the win against Arizona did far more to help than the loss to ASU did to hurt. You can see that from the jump after the green square to the red square (post-Arizona) and the flat line from the red square to the red octagon (post-ASU):

One more data point: The Cougs were up to the final 6 seed at the Bracket Matrix before the game; we’ll check in on Monday to see how the loss changed the resume with the humans. One human who was unmoved by the loss is ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who still had the Cougs on the 5 line this morning.

Up Next

Three games to go, all of them at home, starting with USC on Thursday. The obvious storyline is DJ Rodman’s return to Pullman, but with the Cougs fighting for a conference championship and these two teams having played earlier in the season in Los Angeles, I doubt WSU’s players will care much about that. I think they’re going to be pissed off and laser focused on keeping the pressure on Arizona.

The fans might be a different story — I’m not sure. It might also be different for DJ, who doesn’t have much else to play for other than simply putting on a good show in front of the folks to whom he endeared himself the previous four years.

Tip off is at 7:30 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Network.

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