SEATTLE — Desmond Simmons, reputed as one of the most rugged and dedicated defenders on the University of Washington men’s basketball team, could only sit and watch as the Huskies struggled to stop opponents from scoring during the first month or two of the season.
Didn’t matter who it was—Indiana or Boston College, UC Irvine or Montana. The Huskies didn’t defend anybody very well, and their field-goal percentage defense — ranked among the nation’s worst — provided stark evidence of their biggest flaw.
“It was tough just because I knew at that time, we just didn’t understand yet,” said Simmons, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who missed UW’s first 10 games after undergoing knee surgery. “We were still trying to figure out the defense. We had a lot of young guys playing, and a lot of the time, it’s not easy transitioning from high-school defense to college defense.
“We were kind of going through growing pains, so it was tough to watch us go through it.”
It’s easier to watch now, though Simmons doesn’t have to. He’s worked his way back from the injury
and is again an integral part of the Huskies’ rotation, which will be tested Wednesday in an 8 p.m. home game against Utah.
And for the first time this season, UW is riding a wave of relative encouragement after beginning Pac-12 play with a victory at Arizona State and a hard-fought, 71-62 loss at No. 1 Arizona.
Both of those performances indicated that maybe the Huskies are beginning to develop an identity, one of defensive focus and commitment, coach Lorenzo Romar said.
They’ve seen what happens when that commitment is present: Arizona is undefeated and atop the national rankings, yet Washington led the Wildcats at halftime, 33-31, on Saturday after holding Arizona to 39.3 percent shooting in the first half.
Of course, the Wildcats outlasted the Huskies—their size was too much to handle, and that’s another story in itself — but signs of defensive life were at least on display.
“When we’re locked in like that, it’s fun,” freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “When you’re taking away a team’s offense and you’re on top of everything they are trying to do, it’s fun.”
Stopping an opponent remains a work in progress, which might be a testament to just how much ground the Huskies had to cover after Romar changed his defensive philosophy in the middle of non-conference play.
They don’t pressure passing lanes or ball-handlers quite as much anymore, instead focusing on the prevention of layups and dribble penetration. Simmons, who wasn’t yet cleared to practice when the changes were made, said it took a while for him to adjust once he was allowed to practice again.
“When I first got back into practice, I was running into the lanes to deny all the way out to the 3-point line,” Simmons said. “It took me a couple days to get used to not denying all the way out.”
His teammates seem to be getting used to the changes, too. Romar called the Huskies “functional” defensively, which is a massive upgrade. They will have to continue improving in order to slow Utah, which has played an exceptionally weak schedule but leads the nation with a 53.2 field-goal percentage.
“I don’t think you look at us and say we’re a poor defensive team,” Romar said. “Earlier in the non-conference schedule, you can say, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty poor defensive team,’ and we were. I don’t think you would look at us right now ... on the flip side, I don’t think we’re at a level where you just say, ‘Wow, those guys are constantly hard to score against.’ I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re much better. We hold our own on the defensive end right now.”
UW players will wear a patch on their jersey bearing the initials of former coach Marv Harshman for the rest of the season. Harshman, who died in April, won 246 games in 14 seasons at UW. Romar played for him from 1978-80.
Utah (12-2, 1-1 Pac-12) at Washington (9-6, 1-1)
8 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 950-AM.
The series: Washington leads the all-time series, 7-6.
Scouting report: Utah is enjoying somewhat of a rejuvenation under coach Larry Krystkowiak, though it remains to be seen how much of the Utes’ offensive resurgence — they shoot 53.2 percent from the field, tops in the nation — is due to the series of cupcakes they’ve consumed during non-conference play (Evergreen State College, Saint Martin’s and St. Katherine among them). They certainly looked the part of a team not to be trifled with in their season-opener against No. 17 Oregon, losing 70-68 in overtime on a last-second dunk. Loveridge is a scoring force, but at 8.7 rebounds per game, he’s also a tough box-out for someone who stands only 6-foot-6. The Utes allow opponents to shoot 37.9 percent, but again, that’s a number that will likely increase now that Pac-12 play has started.
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