Slow Starts Plague Huskies

One of my least favorite basketball cliches is that you only need to watch the last few minutes of a game. Even games that are close in nature are often decided long before the finish, and such was the case in Sunday’s Washington Huskies loss at USC. Though the Huskies weren’t completely out of the game until they were unable to get stops down the stretch, they lost the game by falling behind 20-8 before the first TV timeout.

The slow start continued a disturbing trend from this year’s Washington team. In their other two worst Pac-12 losses, home against Utah and at Oregon State, they came out flat. The Utes opened the game with a 12-2 run and the Beavers led 13-3 early en route to both winning their first conference game of the season.

Overall, the Huskies haven’t played poorly early in games. KenPom.com conveniently breaks down each score line into four “quarters” for each 10-minute period. Washington’s best “quarter” is actually the first, during which UW outscores teams by 1.0 point per game. (Their worst “quarter” is the fourth, though that’s not especially telling because of the way teams trying to catch up late in games by intentionally fouling and shooting threes skews the numbers.)

The numbers get a lot more interesting when you account for quality of competition. Using Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System and accounting for home court, I rated how the Huskies could be expected to play against each opponent on their schedule. Divide that by four and you have an expectation for each quarter to compare to actual performance. I then broke down the schedule into three types of games:

Likely wins (Washington favored by at least eight points)- Close games (Projected margins of five points or fewer)
Likely losses (Opponent favored by at least seven points)

Suddenly, a pattern emerges. In likely wins, the Huskies average 2.0 points worse than expected in the first quarter. They’re 1.6 points better than expected in the first quarter in close games, and 2.2 points better in likely losses.

There’s still an effect, though not quite as consistent, in the second quarter, and it entirely disappears in the third quarter before reemerging in the fourth quarter, largely for the reasons described above. (In likely wins, the Huskies were often ahead and playing reserves, for example.)

I’m normally hesitant to discuss quarter-by-quarter trends because I think they mostly represent statistical noise. (These samples, for that matter, are too small for statistical significance.) In this case, though, there’s an explanatory relationship. Lorenzo Romar talked after the Utah and Oregon State games about his team looking at the opposition’s record. USC isn’t as obviously a lesser foe — the Trojans now have a better conference record than UW — but that game still generated less excitement than the previous four games against the top four teams in the conference.

Washington wouldn’t necessarily have won any of those games without the poor start — USC and Utah had narrow edges over the final 30 minutes — but the Huskies certainly would have helped their chances of avoiding costly losses. Now that the team has, in Romar’s words, “zero margin for error,” motivation should not be an issue. It’s hard to imagine a team worse than .500 in conference play looking past anyone.

Tonight’s game against rival Oregon should generate plenty of excitement. We’ll know on Saturday when the Beavers visit Hec Ed whether the Huskies have been able to lick their problem with slow starts.

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