Andrew Andrews was a freshman — not even a freshman, really, because it was still summer — when he realized just how much defensive effort the college game would demand.
It was his first open gym session at the University of Washington. Scott Suggs, then a junior UW guard, was guarding another player off the ball, and he was denying the passing lanes like crazy.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is open gym, what are they doing?’ ” Andrews said earlier this season.
Suggs told him that’s simply the way the Huskies play defense.
“I’ll never be able to do that,” Andrews thought, recalling that he mostly “played no defense” in high school.
This is a shared experience for many college basketball players, even those who thought they played pretty good defense in high school. It’s simply far more difficult at the college level — and far more important — and emphasized with far more diligence by college coaches.
Which means this year’s Huskies, tied for first place in the Pac-12 as they prepare for Thursday night’s game at UCLA, are in a particularly interesting position.
Andrews is the only senior in UW’s eight-man rotation. Six of the others are freshmen, and one is a junior-college transfer playing his first season of Division I basketball.
It’s an undeniably athletic crew — maybe the most athletic team UW coach Lorenzo Romar has assembled — and for that reason, the Huskies play a switch-everything, man-to-man style of defense designed to force turnovers and fuel their transition offense.
At times, it works pretty well: the Huskies lead the Pac-12 in steals (7.9 per game) and opponent turnovers (16.6) in all games and in conference games, and that kind of production is the backbone of their preferred pace — fast.
But there also have been more breakdowns than Romar would like, and those breakdowns have frequently occurred after halftime. In UW’s seven Pac-12 games this season, opponents are shooting 50.2 percent from the field in the second half, a big reason why the Huskies rank 10th in the league in field-goal percentage defense in conference games.
Some breakdowns, of course, are to be expected. The Huskies run a unique defensive scheme. They switch every screen, because Romar believes even the team’s big men — Marquese Chriss, Noah Dickerson and Malik Dime — are athletic and quick-footed enough to guard any other player on the floor in a one-on-one situation, and when a guard is switched onto a forward the Huskies front the post and bring help from the weak side.
(Romar contends that this doesn’t lead to as many big-small mismatches as it might appear, partially because the switching is designed to take the opposing offense out of its typical sets and force them to scramble.)
That’s a lot for a group of freshmen to digest in their first season.
“There’s an art to it,” Romar said. “There’s a certain way. … You have to teach it, you have to be fundamentally sound in it, or it won’t work. You can’t just say ‘you switch, you switch,’ or teams will expose you.”
Perhaps the most difficult aspect to fully understand and apply, though, is learning to be OK with allowing backdoor cuts. The Huskies are taught to deny the passing lanes so fervently that it’s natural for opponents to make those kind of cuts, and Romar says the Huskies’ defense accounts for that — again, if passing-lane denial prompts an opponent to change direction and sprint toward the hoop, another UW player is supposed to be in position with weak-side help.
That takes a while to get used to, Andrews said (and it’s worth noting that even he hasn’t played this style of defense his whole career, because the Huskies went away from it the last two seasons because of insufficient personnel).
“I think that’s probably our biggest improvement so far,” Andrews said.
Matisse Thybulle, a 6-foot-5 freshman starter from Eastside Catholic High in Sammamish, might be the UW’s most gifted defensive player. His arms are long enough that he can deflect passes that others can’t, and he’s quick enough to cover mistakes made by others.
Still, learning the system took time. It’s mostly about trust, he said.
“You’ve got to trust that if you’re going to be in the lane denying, that someone’s got your back in the paint for that backdoor cut,” Thybulle said. “And there’s a couple other times in our defense where you’ve just got to trust that someone’s going to be there to make the right play.”
Romar said that sometimes, he watches his team and sees “tremendous progress” defensively. But the Huskies have to correct their second-half habits if they are to remain atop the conference.
Or, in matters more imminent, if they are to beat UCLA or USC.
“There has been slippage in the second half, and that’s what’s hurt us,” Romar said. “We have to be able to maintain that level of defense for 40 minutes.”
Washington (13-6, 5-2 in Pac-12) at UCLA (12-8, 3-4)
7 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
TV: FOX Sports 1. Radio: 1000-AM/97.7-FM.
All-time series: UCLA leads the series 96-40.
Statistics for 2015-16:
20 Bryce Alford, G (6-3, Jr.): 16.7 ppg, 5.3 apg
10 Isaac Hamilton, G (6-5, Jr.): 16.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg
3 Aaron Holiday, G (6-1, Fr.): 11.2 ppg, 3.9 apg
23 Tony Parker, F (6-9, Sr.): 13.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg
40 Thomas Welsh, C (7-0, So.): 12.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg
12 Andrew Andrews, G (6-2, RSr.): 21.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.7 apg
5 Dejounte Murray, G (6-4.5, Fr.): 14.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.7 apg
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, Fr.): 5.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, Fr.): 8.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg
0 Marquese Chriss, F (6-9, Fr.): 11.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Scouting report: The Huskies and Bruins combined to author an instant classic the first time they played this season. It was the Pac-12 opener, and it was a 96-93 UW victory in double overtime at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. UCLA guard Bryce Alford made a pair of 3-pointers to force both extra periods, and finished the game with 30 points despite making only 5 of 21 from the field. Andrew Andrews had 35 points for the Huskies in that game. The teams combined to commit 64 fouls and shoot 90 free throws. … UCLA used big victories over Kentucky and Gonzaga to move into the national rankings earlier this season, but the Bruins have struggled since the beginning of conference play. They’re 3-4 after being swept by UW and WSU, then losing at home to USC and on the road to Oregon. At 12-8, they’re in need of a home sweep this weekend to bolster their NCAA Tournament résumé. … All five of UCLA’s starters average double figures in scoring, but the Bruins don’t bring much off the bench. 6-10 sophomore Jonah Bolden and freshman guard Prince Ali are their foremost reserves, and neither averages more than 4.2 points per game. … UCLA is the sixth-best shooting team in the league and the ninth-best defensive team in the league, in terms of field goal percentage.