On UW’s Defensive Turnaround

Two weeks into conference play, only the Arizona Wildcats have allowed opponents fewer points per possession than the Washington Huskies. To say this is stunning would probably undersell the magnitude of the turnaround from where we were two weeks ago after non-conference play, when Washington had the second-worst defense of any major-conference team.

Asked about the transformation, UW coach Lorenzo Romar has pointed toward his team finally getting comfortable in the new defensive style (overloading the strong side) the coaching staff installed on the fly in late November after a series of horrendous defensive performances. This is surely at least in part the case, though it’s remarkable how little indication the Huskies gave of this learning curve before starting conference play. (Part of that may be players getting up for Pac-12 foes a tad more than Hartford.)

Additionally, Washington has started switching nearly all screens on the perimeter, a strategy that takes advantage of the team’s size at guard and quickness at forward. The Huskies rarely create a major mismatch by switching, and doing so has allowed them to cut down on the penetration that broke down the defense time and again in November and December.

Beyond all that, Washington has also gotten an enormous dose of good luck in opponent shooting. In last Wednesday’s win, Utah didn’t make a 3-pointer until the final 30 seconds of what was a close game ultimately decided by two points (on, fittingly, a missed 3). Colorado followed that up with another 1-of-12 performance on Sunday. Overall, the four teams the Huskies have faced have shot 6-of-50 (12.0 percent) from beyond the arc.

That, obviously, cannot continue. As Ken Pomeroy’s research has documented, defenses have very little control over the percentage their opponents shoot from 3-point range over entire seasons, let alone four-game stretches.

Credit Romar for understanding that has team has gotten some breaks.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that teams are shooting like 13 percent from the 3 in conference games against us,” Romar told Christian Caple of The News Tribune. “Time will tell if that has anything to do with what we’re doing defensively. We haven’t been in as many rotation situations with this type of defense as we have been in the past. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or not.”

What defenses can control is how many 3s their opponents shoot, and Washington has done well there by avoiding rotations. They rank second from the bottom in terms of the percentage of shots by opponents from 3-point range in conference play and have allowed opponents the lowest assist rate, a good indicator of staying at home defensively and making teams beat defenders 1-on-1.

Still, the Husky defense is bound to regress as opponents make more of their 3s. If you need proof of that, look no further than last season, when I wrote a post about UW’s 4-0 start to Pac-12 play that was eerily similar to this one in every regard. The undefeated start was built on holding opponents to 18.9 percent 3-point shooting. The rest of the conference season, Washington opponents shot 35.7 percent, slightly better than the conference average (33.8 percent). Predictably, the UW defense regressed, and the Huskies finished Pac-12 play at 9-9.

I also introduced the concept of defensive rating adjusted for 3-point luck in last year’s column. Since Caple put together the season 3-point percentage of every player to attempt a 3-pointer against the Huskies in conference play, we can use that and their attempts to show that they should have made about 17 of their 50 attempts, rather than their actual six. Add 33 points to the Huskies’ first four games and their defensive efficiency drops to 104.5 points per 100 possessions, good for seventh in the Pac-12 — slightly below average. And instead of having outscored opponents by 21 points, UW would be -12 through four games.

That’s still not bad for a team projected to finish last in the conference two weeks ago, but the Huskies probably aren’t the threat their performance over the first four games — especially at the defensive end — would indicate.

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