Is this the season when the University of Washington men's basketball team breaks through to the Elite Eight or beyond?
An early indication could come tonight, when the Huskies open Pacific-10 Conference play at Southern California – the only Pac-10 team to sweep them last season.
Those Trojans used offensive and defensive discipline to shut off Washington’s fastbreak. Their size kept the Huskies away from the basket. And last season’s Huskies lacked the outside shooting to force USC out of its tight defensive shell.
Similar matchup difficulties against West Virginia eventually ended Washington’s season in the Sweet 16. So, UW coach Lorenzo Romar used the offseason to chip away at the problems that have cramped his program under a glass ceiling at the round of 16.
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The Huskies got bigger by pairing 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye and the 6-foot-9 Matthew Bryan-Amaning in the starting lineup; and the addition of redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox and the improved marksmanship of players such as Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs has seemed to give UW the half-court option of shooting over defenses that it can’t penetrate.
“We’re more equipped,” Gaddy said. “Last year, we didn’t have a lot of shooters; this year, we have more. Plus, that will open up the floor for us, too.
“Once we start hitting from the outside, then we can go inside to our big guys – Matt especially – and it’s going to be ‘pick your poison.’ ”
That, at least, is the theory.
In practice, the Huskies head into Pac-10 play as both a favorite and a mystery.
They have dominated in their eight victories: all coming by 22 points or more.
However, questions linger from their losses to Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M, all of which came away from home against teams of comparable size and skill – the same formula that the Huskies will face tonight and more regularly through conference play and the postseason.
“It’s something we look forward to,” Bryan-Amaning said. “No disrespect to any of the teams we have played, but we just know, obviously, the level is going to go up, game in and game out. There’s not necessarily going to be any blowouts. There’s going to be tough games on the road and home.”
Those tough games will answer these questions:
• Will the rebounding inconsistency linger?
Last season, Washington led the Pac-10 in rebounding margin. This season, the Huskies have fallen to fourth despite a starting lineup that replaces the 6-foot-6 Quincy Pondexter with the 7-foot N’Diaye. Significantly, Washington has been out-rebounded in all three of its losses.
The problem isn’t physical: These Huskies are taller than last year’s version, and they appear to be just as quick. So far, this appears to be a failing of either head or heart – a lack of discipline or the desire to block out and get after loose balls.
Eleven games is a third of the season. That’s a pretty fair sample. This could be the rare Romar team that struggles on the boards.
• Can the Huskies thrive in a slower-paced game?
As with rebounding, this doesn’t seem like it should be a problem.
These Huskies distribute the ball with a league-leading 1.66 assist-to-turnover ratio. They seem to have the size and quickness to get the ball in the paint. And when a defense reacts by packing it in, UW should have the shooters to score from the outside.
But once again, the three losses offer cautionary tales.
The good news is that Washington leads the Pac-10 with a 90.5 points-per-game scoring average. The bad news is that it breaks down this way: 99.5 points in the wins, 66.7 points in the losses.
• Who is UW’s go-to guy?
Romar loves balanced scoring, and he’s got it. Isaiah Thomas has a team-high 15.8-point scoring average, but five other Huskies average more than 7.5 points.
The Huskies have been in only three close games this season, and they lost all of them.
With everything on the line against Michigan State and Texas A&M, the crucial shots were taken by Wilcox. Both missed. (Wilcox, in fact, has emerged as another indicator of success, averaging 10 points per game in wins and five points in losses.)
However, this is the kind of tendency that can change instantly in conference play. With more close games certainly ahead, it’s likely that the Huskies will turn league games over to Thomas or to seniors Holiday and Bryan-Amaning.
• Can this team break through to the Elite Eight or beyond?
Everything points to yes – except for on-court evidence.
Tired of being bounced from the NCAA tournament by bigger teams, Romar went out got a big man of his own.
When Venoy Overton is healthy, these Huskies seem to be the most defensively harassing UW team since the days of Nate Robinson and Will Conroy. And they seem to have the best outside shooting of any UW team since the days of Tre Simmons and Ryan Appleby.
They have added the kind of size that advances to Elite Eights and even Final Fours.
Yet, this team failed all three tests against the kind of teams that you meet in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The next test comes tonight.
WASHINGTON (8-3) AT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (8-5)
7:30 p.m., Galen Center, Los Angeles.
TV: None. Radio: 950-AM.
Series: USC leads, 67-65, after sweeping the Huskies last season. At home, the Trojans lead the series 38-26.
Statistical leaders: For UW – Isaiah Thomas, 15.8 ppg; Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 13.9 rpg; Venoy Overton, 4.5 apg. For USC – Jio Fontan, 16.3 ppg, ppg; Nicola Vucevic, 9.6 rpg; Maurice Jones, 4.2 apg.
Scouting report: This is the Pacific-10 Conference opener for both teams. The Trojans feature the Pac-10’s top two rebounders: Vucevic and Alex Stephenson (8.6 rpg). Fontan has played in three games since transferring from Fordham. His second and third games were enough to earn Pac-10 player-of-the-week honors after averaging 17 points, four assists and 3.5 steals in wins over Tennessee and Lehigh. Washington has won seven consecutive Pac-10 games and four straight conference road games. A Huskies win tonight would establish a school record for consecutive Pac-10 road wins. UW seniors Justin Holiday (foot) and Venoy Overton (ankle) are expected to be available.
Next: 1 p.m. Friday, at UCLA, Pauley Pavilion, FSN.
Don Ruiz, staff writer