With just less than two minutes remaining in last night’s 64-54 Washington win over visiting Colorado, Buffaloes forward Andre Roberson banked in a three-pointer. Unless you happen to be an NBA scout taking note of Roberson’s range, you probably didn’t pay the shot much attention. With Colorado down 11 at the time, it mostly served to prolong the final two minutes by encouraging Tad Boyle to foul and Lorenzo Romar to take timeouts to protect the lead.
What made Roberson’s triple notable was that it was the Buffaloes’ only three-pointer of the night in 10 attempts. In a game where points were at a premium, the Huskies’ 18-3 advantage from long distance was a major key to the win. Consider it an off night for Colorado, which usually makes 35.7 percent of its three-point tries, but part of a larger trend for UW.
The difference between Washington’s 4-0 start to conference play and their underwhelming 8-5 non-conference mark — which included home losses to Albany and Nevada — has been largely at the defensive end of the floor. The turnaround really dates to the Huskies’ final game before Pac-12 play, a 61-53 loss at Connecticut that was attributable to an off shooting night from star C.J. Wilcox, not the defense. Before that game, UW was allowing opponents to score more points per 100 possessions than their adjusted season-long marks (via KenPom.com). In plain English, the Huskies were worse than the average NCAA defense through their first 12 games. That’s bad news for a power-conference team, and explains the upsets Washington suffered.
Starting in Storrs, the Huskies have been a juggernaut defensively. Their last five opponents have collectively averaged 17.0 points per 100 possessions fewer than their season-long adjusted marks. Only one team in the country (Louisville) has been so stingy over the course of the season. There are multiple explanations for the turnaround. A healthy roster has allowed Romar to trim his rotation. A week of practice during the holidays may have given the coaching staff more time to focus on defense after spending early practice time implementing a new high-post offense. And Aziz N’Diaye has been dominant in the paint, successfully avoiding foul trouble to stay on the court for more than 30 minutes a night in conference play.
Beyond that, Washington has been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of opponents’ three-point shooting. Over the past five games, Husky opponents have shot 12-of-67 (17.9 percent) from downtown. While there have been some middling three-point opponents in the group, weighted for their attempts in each game, this group should have shot 32.8 percent. Colorado and Connecticut both would have scored nine more points had they merely reached their season average in those respective games. The impact was even greater in the Stanford and WSU games. Both teams made two fewer threes than expected, which could have swung close games.
Now, you’re probably protesting that improved three-point defense reflects everything else Washington has tightened up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the research done by Ken Pomeroy, who has found that teams have little control over the three-point percentage their opponents shoot over the course of full seasons, let alone five-game stretches. You know who’s an example of this? The Huskies. When I took a look at the team in December, I noted that one reason Washington’s defense was playing so poorly was bad luck in terms of opponent three-point shooting. Through Dec. 22, Husky opponents should have shot 34.0 percent from beyond the arc. They actually hit 37.5 percent, though it’s hard to find an example of hot shooting actually causing Washington to lose (the two best examples were Seton Hall, which the Huskies won anyway, and a blowout loss to Colorado State).
Using the same method of expected three-point percentage, we can construct ratings for each of Washington’s games independent of three-point defense and summarize the two portions of the season (note that Pac-12 includes the UConn game, as before):
Stretch DRtg OppORtg AdjDRtg 3P%luck No3DRtg No3AdjDrtg ---------------------------------------------------------------- NonC 101.6 101.0 - 0.6 - 8 98.6 +2.2 Pac12 88.0 105.1 +17.0 +10 97.2 +8.1 Total 97.7 102.2 + 4.5 + 2 98.2 +3.9
That’s a lot of column headers, so let me explain. DRtg is the actual points per 100 possessions opponents have scored in each stretch. OppORtg is the opponents’ season-long Adjusted Offensive Efficiency — what we’d expect them to do against an average opponent. So AdjDRtg is the difference — how much better the Huskies are than average.
3P%luck is the number of threes better or worse teams have done than expected. No3DRtg is how many points per 100 possessions teams would have scored had they made threes at their season-long percentage against the Huskies, and No3AdjDRtg uses this figure to see how the rest of the Washington defense compares to NCAA average.
Even if you don’t believe Pomeroy’s research, it’s clear that taking out three-pointers produces a more consistent view of defenses. More than 20 percent of the variance in UW’s adjusted defense from game to game can be explained solely by opponents’ three-point shooting. Factoring in the variability in three-point defense, the Huskies were above average all along, though they have gotten better over the last five games at other facets of defense.
The three-independent figure would put Washington about 50th in the nation defensively, which is similar to where the Huskies have been the last two seasons. Add in an offense that has improved slightly from 2011-12 and this Washington team now looks capable of ranking in the upper third of the Pac-12 and challenging for an NCAA tournament berth. That’s as big a turnaround as the three-point defense has made.
AN ASIDE ON LUCK: I know using the term “luck” bothers some readers because of the fact that it doesn’t take into account the skill, strategy and execution involved on the court. I would compare the issue to forms of gambling that include both skill and luck, like blackjack and poker. Over the course of a single hand, or even a night of play, randomness is the dominant factor, which is why we say poker players get lucky or unlucky. It’s only in the long run, over thousands of hands, that the randomness evens out and we can tell stronger players from weaker ones. Three-point defense is similar, except that the college season doesn’t provide thousands of attempts. There’s not enough time for the differences between teams to become evident. So three-point defense is in fact a skill; it just can’t be determined from opponents’ three-point percentage, which tends to be misleading.