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WSU Men's Basketball

Rested or rusted? Analytics have helped Washington State gauge performance following COVID-19 layoffs

Head coach Kyle Smith’s Washington State Cougars have had their share of postponements this season but recently played four games over an 11-day stretch.  (Associated Press)

Most of the time, the advanced analytics used by Washington State’s coaching staff measure how a basketball team performs when it’s on the court, finding value in various aspects of the game that tend to go underappreciated by others.

In some cases, though, the Cougars can gauge how teams fare when they’ve been away from the floor.

Those findings could come in handy this week as WSU travels to Oregon, preparing to face the Ducks, who have been impacted by COVID-19 interruptions more than any team in the Pac-12 Conference this season.

Dana Altman’s team has played once since Jan. 9 and will have gone 12 days without playing when Thursday’s game (tentatively) tips off at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene . Although Oregon’s been on COVID-19 hiatus for the better part of the past month, it appears likely the Ducks will return to the floor on Thursday.

California is the only team in the conference without a Pac-12 postponement, playing all 12 of its originally scheduled contests. To put that into perspective, Oregon (9-3, 4-2) has played half that many and two fewer than the next-most impacted team, Arizona State. Despite a few setbacks, WSU (10-7, 3-7) has managed to squeeze in 10 conference games, making up a previously postponed game against Colorado.

There are different theories related to how long layoffs impact a team – many of those deriving from college football bowl games that are often played up to three weeks after a conference championship game.

Essentially, when does rest become rust?

“You’ll believe us, we have an assistant on our staff who’s done the analytics on, depending how many days you’re off and how that’s going to impact you,” Smith said. “If it’s a 10-day break, it’s almost an advantage … your body gets to refresh a little bit. But once you go over 14 days, it’s a little bit of a disadvantage.”

Assistant coach/analytics director John Andrzejek isn’t crunching these numbers himself, but he’s discovered a source that’s helped inform the college basketball world at large how a long break impacts performance.

The data comes from Evan Miyakawa, a PhD candidate at Baylor studying statistics who also runs his own website, Miyakawa’s site generates player ratings, team ratings and makes game predictions, but recently the hoops-crazed statistician dipped his toes into something that’s more exclusive to the 2020-21 college basketball season: COVID-19 pauses.

On Friday, Miyakawa tweeted that teams coming off a COVID-19 layoff have an additional disadvantage of 2.3 points per game, in a normal tempo game. His analytics have determined teams that pause for 14 days are at a 0.5-point disadvantage, but that number reaches 2.3 points at 21 days and 4.0 points at 28 days.

An interactive chart designed by Miyakawa includes the results of every Division I basketball game involving a team that was paused for 14 days or longer, accounting for “performance compared to expected efficiency” and “days since last game.”

“Some teams perform extremely well coming off a pause,” Andrzejek told The Spokesman-Review in a Twitter message. “Once you get further out, it’s a pretty clear net negative.”

Oregon’s last game, at home against Oregon State, came on the heels of a 14-day pause. Las Vegas odds favored Altman’s team by nine points, but the Ducks wound up losing 75-64.

Miyakawa’s model isn’t set up to account for a situation like the one Oregon faces: a 14-day pause followed by a single game followed by a 12-day pause.

The Ducks would conceivably be at a disadvantage having played just 40 minutes of competitive basketball over a 26-day span – the Cougars have played 240 minutes over that same stretch – but it’s not something Smith, Andrzejek or the rest of WSU’s coaching staff will spend much time pondering once the ball is tipped in Eugene. The analytics generally go out the window at that point.

“We’ve got to just go play them,” Smith said. “We’ll see what happens. Once the ball goes up, you won’t be thinking about it.”

The Cougars haven’t gone more than five days without a game since Jan. 2. They recently came off an 11-day stretch that saw them play four games and they’ll have played eight of their past 10 on the road after Saturday’s late afternoon tip against Oregon State in Corvallis.

“We’re banging to Vegas,” Smith said. “We’ll just keep rolling. … There’s a lot of games coming.”

Bamba questionable

TJ Bamba is traveling with the Cougars this week, but there’s a chance the freshman guard will only play on the back end of the Oregon-Oregon State road swing.

Bamba missed the team’s last game, at Washington, with a toothache. Smith told reporters Tuesday that while he expects the reserve guard to play in Saturday’s game against the Beavers, it’s unclear if the Bronx, New York, native will be cleared by Thursday.

“He doesn’t miss anything, I can’t get him to take a rep off practice, I can’t get him out of the gym,” Smith said. “He’s an A student. When he said, ‘Coach, I can’t practice,’ I looked at our trainer and said, ‘He’s hurt.’ ”