One of my favorite Ken Pomeroy studies comes from College Basketball Prospectus 2008-09, when Ken took aim at the notion that Team A is better than Team B just because Team A beat Team B. What he found was truly remarkable. Teams that won conference home games by 10-19 points were basically 50-50 win the rematch on the road (.507, to be exact). Even teams that won blowouts by at least 20 points at home won just 58.3 percent of the time facing the same opponent on the road.
There are two lessons to be taken here. The first is that home-court advantage is a big deal in college basketball. (More recently, Pomeroy found it is worth 3.8 points to the home team.) The second is that a single game simply isn’t all that telling about the respective strength of the two teams involved.
I thought about that research tonight, when the Washington Huskies were destroyed at Matt Knight Arena, 82-57. In many ways, the game was a mirror image of the game the Huskies played against the Oregon Ducks on New Year’s Eve. Both times, the home team took a first-half lead and continued to extend it thanks to hot shooting. At Hec Ed, Washington shot 12-of-22 (54.5 percent) from three-point range, while Oregon made just 21.7 percent (5-of-23). Tonight, that reversed itself, as the Ducks shot 7-of-13 (53.8 percent) and the Huskies 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Each game featured the worst offensive performance of the season by the losing team.
Had the two teams both shot their usual percentage on threes (which is nearly identical, 35.7 percent for Washington and 36.1 percent for Oregon), the Huskies would have scored an additional nine points and the Ducks six fewer. That wouldn’t have been enough to make up the 25-point difference, but it certainly would have made the game a lot more respectable. Given the outcome of the first game, it’s difficult to argue the difference is a meaningful statement about the two teams. It’s just noise.
To me, a possession early in the game was a microcosm of Washington’s night. Down 12-4, far too early to be out of the game, the Huskies ran probably their best single possession of zone offense. After sucking Oregon’s zone to the strong side of the court, Washington passed over the top to a wide-open Terrence Ross, only to see the 38.4 percent three-point shooter miss. Those kinds of misses are disheartening on the road, especially when the opposition is throwing up every shot it takes. Conversely, the microcosm at the other end was the Huskies forcing Tyrone Nared–6-for-21 from three on the year–to shoot from beyond the arc with the shot clock running down and Ross draped all over him. Nared made it because of course he did.
Plays like that don’t excuse the disparity in energy between the two teams, but they do explain it.
The upside from Washington’s perspective is that Thursday’s game can be flushed away fairly safely. The downside is the broader perspective isn’t quite as sanguine as it appeared from the conference standings. As John Gasaway’s Tuesday Truths breakdown showed, the Huskies’ efficiency differential through last weekend did not match up to their Pac-12-leading 9-2 record. Washington has been the beneficiary of some good fortune in recent games, including narrow victories at Arizona and over UCLA. Not only does the Huskies’ differential now look even worse, it doesn’t account for a favorable schedule that has included seven home games and just five on the road to date.
There are plenty of issues the Huskies must correct. The Ducks’ four-out offense was able to exploit Washington’s difficulty guarding cuts in the paint without help from a big man, which is why the Huskies were more effective defensively when they briefly switched to a zone before halftime. Tony Wroten has to adjust to opponents playing him for the drive and flopping before he makes contact, plays that are as preventable as they are aggravating. Abdul Gaddy must find his confidence and C.J. Wilcox his rhythm as shooters. (How long ago Gaddy’s 3-of-3 shooting from downtown in the last meeting with Oregon now seems; since then, he’s made four threes in his last 22 attempts.) And Washington must find a way to get Ross some easy buckets. His stepbacks and three-pointers are exhilarating when they’re working, but when those difficult shots don’t go in Ross is too often a non-factor for a player with his immense offensive gifts.
We’ve seen how good the Huskies can be. Their win at Arizona increasingly looks as impressive as almost any in the conference this season, edged only by the Wildcats winning at Cal. Yet when Washington is off, the results are ugly. Neither performance extreme is indicative of the Huskies’ true level, which lies somewhere in between. Where it settles will determine Washington’s fate in a Pac-12 that is still there for the taking.