SEATTLE — Bouncing through a turbulent non-conference schedule has become an all-too-familiar process for the Washington Huskies the past six seasons.
Since going 10-1 in 2006 amid cries of creampuff competition, Washington has lost four or more non-conference games three times. The past two seasons, the Huskies have finished with five non-conference losses.
Washington (8-5) starts Pacific-12 Conference play when it travels across the state to Pullman today for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff with Washington State (9-4). The Huskies hope this first of three road games shifts them onto a path similar to prior seasons.
Last year, despite being 6-5 after non-conference, the Huskies won the regular-season conference title. At 8-3 the prior year, they won the Pac-12 tournament on Isaiah Thomas’ last-second jumper and narrowly missed getting to the Sweet 16 – losing to North Carolina, 86-83, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Those seem distant aspirations at the moment. Washington was considered a challenger for the league title in each of those seasons and several previous ones. This year, assessments of the Huskies prior to and since the season started place them in the middle of an improved Pac-12. Even the defense of their conference title seems a bit deflated.
“It’s kind of weird since we didn’t make it to the tournament last year,” guard C.J. Wilcox said. “You don’t really feel like you are (defending champions). This year’s a lot different than last year. I feel like we’ve got to prove ourselves over and over.”
The next chance comes against the Cougars and multifaceted Brock Motum, who led the Pac-12 in scoring last season and is at it again. He’s averaging 19.7 points and seven rebounds a game.
Motum is 6-foot-10, and his offensive approach has the aesthetics of a warthog yet the effectiveness of a Swiss Army knife.
He’s able to step out and shoot 3-pointers at a respectable clip, though his percentage this year is down to 32.5 percent from 39.7 a year ago. He can work at the elbow, off flare screens or run pick-and-pop plays when setting a ball screen.
Motum will also drive the ball and venture into the post. The majority of what Washington State runs on offense goes through him.
“Maybe the most versatile player in our league,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He’s a guard and a big all in one. A guy like that at that size who can do all those things is difficult to deal with.”
Which leaves Desmond Simmons with his hands full today. Simmons will be the likely first opposition Motum faces. But, like all others trying to handle Washington State, the Huskies will be running help toward Simmons and whoever else ends up on Motum.
“I’ll be ready,” Simmons said.
The question is, will his teammates be. Wilcox, in particular, has struggled on the road. He averages 21.8 points a game in Hec Edmundson Pavilion and 11.5 points away from there. His 2-for-12 from the floor aided the Huskies’ stone-cold shooting performance against Connecticut on Dec. 29 despite multiple good looks. Just seven of his 30 free-throw attempts have come on the road.
“I guess I’ve got to mix it up a little more.” Wilcox said.
He is talking about diversifying his offensive game. Though, that may be an overall mental approach the entire team could use to start conference play.
HUSKIES AND COUGARS GAMEDAY
Washington (8-5) at Washington State (9-4)
6:30 p.m., Friel Court, Pullman
TV: ESPNU. Radio: 950-AM, 102.9-FM, 710-AM.
All-time series: Washington leads 174-100
Scouting report: The Cougars are 8-1 at home and have won four in a row and seven of their past eight overall. The only loss during that stretch was against Gonzaga and came when the Bulldogs’ Kevin Pangos hit a runner with two seconds left in the game. Washington State likes to slow the game to set up opportunities for Brock Motum, who led the conference in scoring last season. Washington is playing at its slowest tempo since Lorenzo Romar took over. Should be a rock fight. Probable starters
Washington State (9-4)
D.J. SheltonF5.firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas Todd Dybas, staff writer