Coaches shook their heads when assessing Washington after playing it in Maui.
The Huskies whomped Tony Bennett and Virginia by 43 points. “This is the team Lorenzo (Romar) has been waiting for,” Bennett said.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans squeaked past Washington. “I really, really like that team,” Izzo said postgame.
Then there was Kentucky wholesaler John Calipari. A word magician, he delivered after his Wildcats held off Washington in the most ferocious game during three days on the serene island.
“Now they’ve got post play, they’ve got 3-point shooters, they’ve got two point guards,” Calipari said. “They’re like Noah’s Arc, they’ve got a couple of everything.”
Calipari, revered just ahead of Moses in his home digs, relays fact. The preseason premonition this Washington team is a different brand is true. The awaited step past the Sweet 16 should happen this season.
There is a jumble of wing players, interchangeable parts that would make Eli Whitney proud. Romar’s three-guard rotation of Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy has escalated in versatility. Washington is larger and meaner in the middle following Aziz N’Diaye’s arrival.
The changes to the front and back are dramatic. Each received an extreme makeover, one through the maturation of Gaddy, the other through addition of N’Diaye.
Gaddy shot 20 3-pointers last season. Three went in. After eight games this year, he’s made 20 attempts from behind the 3-point line. Twelve found bottom. That’s a jump from 15 percent to 60 percent. It’s not a shot structure rebuild, but a mental one. After suffering through a freshman season finding difficulty to believe his own hype, confidence is up.
N’Diaye traveled his circuitous path to Washington in order to menace the middle. The seven-footer growled at, stared down and swatted Kentucky’s attempts to challenge him. Intimidated, he’s not.
Yet the NCAA tournament hinges on moments and matchups, and Washington is not the first school to encounter continual tournament roadblocks. Take Purdue.
Former Boilermakers coach Gene Keady was there for 25 years. Six times he was named the National Coach of the Year. He has the most wins in school history, the second-most in Big Ten history. His teams made it to the Elite Eight twice, never further. The Boilermakers were bounced three times in the Sweet 16. The fine folks of West Lafayette, IN., grumbled: Why can’t they advance?
Current Illinois coach Bruce Weber spent 18 years adjacent to Keady’s comb-over as a Purdue assistant. Eventually Weber made it to the title game with the Illini in 2005. For him, the formula has three parts: Lottery pick on the team, good defensive foundation, athleticism. Washington has two out of three.
In addition, a veteran team has already allowed Romar to mix defenses on the fly, the way he would when playing two games in three days during the tournament.
“We can say we’re going to play this particular defense even though we’ve not practiced it this year and the guys will remember it,” Romar said. “During a timeout, ‘Yup, I’ve got it. I know exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ And we go out and execute it. We’ve done that several times this year already.”
Also in pocket is depth and shooting, both exemplified by Scott Suggs on Monday night.
Suggs rose off the bench to score 13 points in the second half. It was the timing and type of his contribution, crucial 3-pointers when pesky Portland would not melt away, that were emblematic.
It was Suggs on Monday night. C.J. Wilcox has proven capable. Terrence Ross, the last man off the bench, is lost on defense but can score. He’s also learning to rebound. The weakest link in the rotation, Ross, would surprise no one if he scored 15 points. Few other teams in the country have that possibility.
The added shooting has allowed Thomas to rumble into a less suffocated lane. In recent years, the scout of Cedar Knob from Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch in “Hoosiers” would have applied to Washington:
“They got no head-toppers. Run you off the boards. Got to squeeze ’em back in the paint. Make ’em chuck it from the cheap seats.”
No longer. Romar’s club is not a one-trick pony, rather a stable. The rebounding and halfcourt offense need to improve prior to the tournament. The next three-plus months will be used for that.
Each year, one element inside the Huskies’ lockerroom changes. A basketball operations staffer swaps out a photo of the location of last season’s Final Four with the new one. An image of Houston’s Reliant Stadium is stuck to the wall this season.
“That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s not for everybody,” Thomas said.
Washington fans know that. This Huskies group has a reasonable chance to become elite, if not more.