"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Know Your Opponent: Washington Huskies


It's time for a primer on the Washington Huskies, a talented pre-season top 25 team that is now playing up to that level. Joining us today is Don Ruiz, the Washington Huskies beat reporter from The News Tribune in Tacoma. Don and his colleagues follow the Huskies closely in print and on their blog. Don was good enough to give us an in-depth look at Lorenzo Romar's Huskies in our latest installment of Know Your Opponent.

Can you give us a rundown of the Huskies' big four -- Thomas, Pondexter, Bryan-Amaning and Overton?

Not all Washington fans would necessarily relate to the idea of a Big Four. Most would think of a big two -- Quincy Pondexter, Isaiah Thomas -- and then some role players ... role players whose growing understanding of their roles has been crucial to the Huskies' late-season improvement.

Pondexter is the team's lone senior. He led the Huskies in scoring and rebounding and was in the top three in the Pac-10 in both categories. He also led the league in offensive rebounds. He scores primarily from mid-range and in -- pull-ups on drives and turnaround jumpers when posting.

Thomas is 5-foot-9, yet he gets most of his points by going to the rim. He'll get blocked sometimes, but he's relentless -- a pure scorer who always believes the next shot is going in. He' has really improved his defense this season. And while NBA scouts still want to see improvement in his passing and outside shooting over the next season or two, he has a knack for coming through when it matters.

Bryan-Amaning frustrated UW fans for his first two and a half seasons, because he has an NBA body and potential that he hadn't fulfilled. However, coach Lorenzo Romar benched him midway through this season and had a talk with him, challenging Bryan-Amaning to simplify his game -- fewer moves, just go to the hole. Since moving back among the starters in mid-February he has been a difference-making guy in the middle: double-digit points, 6-8-10 rebounds, shot-blocking and defense.

Venoy Overton -- and forward Justin Holiday -- both made the Pac-10 all-defensive team. And their defensive intensity has been crucial to the Huskies' recent improvement. Overton also is the team's assists leader, and he is the team's best free throw shooter when the game is on the line.

Though not mentioned, the other two key role guys are Elston Turner and Scott Suggs, either of whom can sometimes provide outside shooting on a team that otherwise doesn't have much of it.

Washington was a preseason Top 25 team but struggled early. The Huskies now have won 12 of their last 14 including the Pac 10 tourney title. What is clicking with his team right now that was absent earlier in the season?

That's the topic of my story in the Tuesday paper. The short version is that the Huskies had a pair of problems that were hard to overcome: no dependable scoring around the basket, but also no dependable outside shooting. It proved especially difficult to overcome on the road -- UW lost its first six games away from home. The emergence of Bryan-Amaning as an inside presence and third option helped a lot. Justin Holiday's insertion into the starting lineup on Jan. 14 also helped everyone buy into the defensive pressure. And that attitude just snowballed when they noticed how defensive pressure often transitioned into easy baskets. They seem to understand now they they have little margin for error, and therefore they're bringing full effort pretty regularly -- as Washington State coach Ken Bone said today, 'Not just every game, but almost every possession."

Thomas is playing great right now, winning the Pac-10 Tournament MVP award. Is his play the barometer for the Huskies' success, or does something else key the team?

Thomas has been pretty consistent. He was second team all-conference as a freshmen, and moved up to the (10-member) first team this season, while increasing his points, rebounds and assist numbers and vastly improving his defense. I wouldn't say his play is the barometer. UW can get by with either Thomas or Pondexter having an off night. But they can't get by with both having an off night.

Washington protects the ball very well -- is that a product of the skill of the team or the nature of the Pac-10 this season?

Coach Lorenzo Romar tends to recruit guards and athletic swingman-type forwards. Therefore while the team has no single amazing ball-handler point guard, just about everyone is comfortable handling the ball. However, they play an uptempo game, so Romar is generally happy if turnovers don't creep up much over a dozen.

However, the conference might have something to do with it, too. This used to be an aggressive man-to-man league. But several teams have gone primarily to zone this season.

Conventional wisdom is that the Pac10 is weak this year. How is the conventional wisdom off?

It's not. The Pac-10 lost 22 players to the NBA draft over the past two seasons, including 14 first rounders. UCLA lost its starting point guard to the NBA for the fourth consecutive season. Many of those departures were underclassmen, and this season it really created a league of teams led mostly by underclassmen. Arizona's a good example: Their 25-season streak of NCAA tournament appearances ended this season when the Wildcats went with a roster made up of one senior, one junior, six sophomores and seven freshmen. California was the preseason favorite -- and ended up winning the league -- because it was the only team that was built around upperclassmen.

But the fact is that 60 percent of the league made the NCAA tournament last season, and only 20 percent -- Washington and Cal -- this season.

Looking at the stats, Washington favors an uptempo game, winning the turnover battles, and aggressive offensive rebounding. What's their kryptonite?

On limited evidence, maybe their kryptonite is physical opponents. USC is the most physical of Pac-10 teams, and it was the only Pac-10 team to sweep its two meetings with the Huskies this season -- once by 26 points. And another of UW's less competitive games came against Georgetown, another team with size and muscle the Huskies couldn't match.

However, since opposing coaches can't simply instruct their teams to be bigger, most opposing coaches seemed to try packing their defenses tight and forcing the Huskies to shoot from the outside. However, it hasn't worked consistently, because while the Huskies don't really have a traditional post game -- or didn't until Bryan-Amaning's recent emergence -- they are a good driving and offensive rebounding team that can generally find alternative ways to get the ball into the paint. Plus, they have enough OK outside options where they can usually find someone with an acceptably hot hand. And when they don't, offensive rebounding sometimes bails them out.

Maybe this true issue is more hemlock than kryptonite -- meaning UW's real problems are usually self-inflicted. This team doesn't have great margin for error, so when they don't bring it -- when they don't hustle, defend and share the ball -- that's when they're going to have trouble.

Don, thanks very much.

Fans you can follow Don on The News Tribune blog site or via Twitter. Be sure to check in with Don throughout the week, and see our answers to his questions over there.

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