Hoping to break up a four-game losing streak, the Arizona Wildcats host the Washington State Cougars later tonight. The Cougars just pulled off the biggest upset in the Pac-12 thus far, stunning Arizona State in Tempe 90-71 on Thursday.
To see whether they can repeat that performance, I spoke with Jeff Nusser of CougCenter.com, to gauge Wazzu on whether they can win.
Here’s our Q&A.
Wazzu has really struggled yet again this year. Is Ernie Kent’s job in jeopardy?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that nobody is happy and everyone is embarrassed and under any kind of normal circumstances, his firing would be a slam dunk. He’s 20-62 in Pac-12 play since he was hired, his overall win percentage at the school is just .381, and his teams have never rated higher than 186 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin. Heck, even after somehow beating ASU by 21 on Thursday, they only rose to 199. So, yeah -- the results are definitely fireable.
But ... no. He’s probably not going anywhere. He’s owed three fully guaranteed years after this one for a total of $4.2 million, and conventional wisdom is that WSU won’t decide to eat that kind of money, given the financial state of the athletics department -- they’ve been running up an operating deficit for years and are trying to get that under control. I more optimistic than a lot of people are that it’s not completely off the table, but I’d still file it under the category of “pretty unlikely.”
What is Washington State’s biggest strength? How about biggest weakness?
As usual under Kent, the biggest strength is shooting. The Cougs rank 52nd nationally in effective field goal percentage and are 5th in Pac-12 play in 3-point percentage, shooting threes on nearly half their field goal attempts. They’re also tops in the conference at free throw percentage. If it involves shooting, they’re competent.
Biggest weakness? Pretty much everything else, particularly on defense. They’re at the bottom of the conference in points per possession allowed at 1.17, and that’s even after somehow holding Arizona State to 0.82. In a conference where the median points allowed per possession is 1.04, the Cougs have allowed teams to score 1.27 or more six times in 10 games, with opponents exceeding 85 points in each of those. They’ve given up 90 or more three times. It doesn’t take patient teams very long to find an easy shot.
Who’s a player to watch for the Cougars?
Robert Franks is the team’s lone NBA prospect -- he briefly explored entering the draft last year before deciding to come back to school -- and he can carry an offense nearly by himself. He’s listed at 6-foot-9 but he’s really 6-7 (he magically “grew” two inches this offseason after being listed at 6-7 for three years), however he’s got a massive wing span that allows him to get off his shot over virtually anyone, especially since his range extends beyond the three-point line. But he’s not a one-trick pony; he’s incredibly crafty around the basket, using his long arms to avoid defenders, and he can finish with either his right or left. He finished with 34 points on 17 shots against the Sun Devils.
What does WSU have to do to pull off the upset in Tucson?
Something similar to what happened in Tempe: A combination of hot shooting by the Cougs and dreadful shooting by Arizona. ASU missed its first 17 threes and also missed a slew of shots around the basket. Many of those were open and the kind of shots you’d expect a team to make. The funny thing about that win is that WSU didn’t really have a spectacular offensive game overall, but they had a really really good first half, and that was enough to get the Sun Devils to panic. I doubt any of that happens again -- I’m certain we’ll look back at that ASU game when the season’s over and just laugh at what a ridiculous outlier it was. I’d put the chances of an upset against the Wildcats very, very low.
What’s your score prediction?
Arizona 85, WSU 67.