The Washington Huskies went into last Sunday’s basketball game at Pullman as the Pac-10 pace-setter, the 18th-ranked team in the nation and on a road to a potential high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then they lost to the Cougars (87-80). Four days later, they lost to Oregon State (68-56). Two days after, they lost to Oregon (81-76).
They fell hard. Reality bites.
As of today, the Huskies are 15-7 overall, 7-4 in the Pac-10, closer to fifth place than first, closer to ordinary than special. When the new national polls are announced Monday morning, they will not be among the top 25. For the balance of the season, the Huskies will struggle to reclaim leadership in the conference and curry the favor of the NCAA Selection Committee.
This is unexpected.
All that makes this week the most significant segment of the season. It’s Transition Week, as in the Huskies trying to reclaim what has slipped away. They have to eliminate distractions. They have to take better care of the ball. They need their swagger back. They have to get healthy. And they have to transition again to the transition game, which all but disappeared during this triple-loss week.
There will be changes — perhaps dramatic, perhaps a tinker or two — this week. Coach Lorenzo Romar holds himself, his coaches and his players accountable. He will make demands on his players. Broken things have to change. Otherwise they won’t reach their preseason goals.
Here is a six-point plan on how to approach this week:
- Swift and appropriate justice for the unnamed troubled player: The King County Prosecutor’s Office has decided not to charge a ‘prominent’ player with sexual assault of a 16-year-old. Insufficient evidence. He may have dodged one bullet but not another. Romar and athletic director Scott Woodward no doubt have talked to the played involved. They know what happened that night. They don’t need a jury. They are it. Their legal threshold is whatever their team/school rules they believe he violated. This guy needs to be dealt with, benched, suspended or terminated. Just the allegation that he introduced alcohol to a minor is a deal-buster. If they want to know if it’s true, ask him. If he’s hiding something, he’ll be in bigger trouble. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo dismissed guard Korie Lucious two weeks ago for conduct detrimental to the team. Whatever Lucious did it may or may not measure up to what the Husky player did, but Izzo showed zero tolerance and cut loose a player who was leading his team in assists. There should not be sacred cows and privileges. A month ago, Washington State coach Ken Bone suspended guard Reggie Moore after a legal matter. He was reinstated after one game and the team moved on. What does it matter that the UW player now suddenly will be named? He’s an adult. It’s what you’d expect if you break the rules. There’s no perfect time to dismiss or suspend a player if that’s the ultimate decision – but this whole thing has been more of a distraction than anyone is willing to admit. It has reached the point that it needs to be resolved.
- Danger Zone: There’s a reason why teams are using packed-in zones against UW. They work. Lately, the Huskies haven’t shown they can beat zones effectively and consistently. All three teams used zone variations last week in their upsets. The Huskies looked particularly ineffective against the Beavers. They couldn’t get the ball inside, couldn’t penetrate and couldn’t shoot over it. High percentage outside shooting is the primary way to beat a zone or force defensive changes. UW is a good perimeter shooting team, yet not last week. They were 29 of 87 (33.3 percent) from three-point range in the three losses. Overall in their seven losses, the Huskies have shot 30.9 from behind the arc. In their 15 wins, they’ve shot 44.6 percent. They have a tendency to settle for the trey and when this team is not hitting from outside the chances of winning decline greatly. Just about every team they’ll play the rest of the way will zone them until the Huskies show they can deal with it. The Huskies can’t depend on sharpshooters as the perpetual game plan. They’ll need to find Matthew Bryan-Amaning inside more with the entry pass. They do that through dribble penetration or a more active MBA underneath, demanding the pass. Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton need to take the ball more inside to exploit the seams in the zone, forcing defenders to make choices. That’s a team strength. They’re both proficient at that. It also induces fouls, putting them on the line as well as putting opposing players in foul trouble. But against the Oregon schools, the Huskies went to the line just 30 times, making just 14. The Beavers/Ducks combined for 61 free-throw attempts, making 43. When those two teams score 29 more points at the line and the Huskies lose by a combined 17 points, you think free throws don’t matter much? Another way to bust a zone is to bring MBA out to the high post more often. This has the benefit of drawing defenders out with him, opening a more uncluttered inside. It shouldn’t be as hard as it looked last week. The Huskies have beaten the zones this season, sometimes handily. They just need to make sure that Plan B and Plan C can work when Plan A blows up. That’s what practice is for.
- Transition to the transition game: Romar always talks about how the Husky defense sets up the offense. Steals, defensive rebounds, outlet passes power the UW fastbreaks that can be devastating for the opponent. This team is built for that kind of action. Romar recruits with that athlete in mind. They thrive in a pell-mell atmosphere. But what happens when that running game is slowed? We saw it last week. Opponents were determined to impair the Huskies’ transition game. They forced Washington into a half court game, which puts UW at a disadvantage. How to restore that will be difficult. It takes active feet and active hands, filling lanes, anticipating passes and just gritty work. It’s not enough to have just four steals against the Oregon schools. UW had been averaging eight steals a game. The Huskies also were beaten on the boards, 78-67, limiting their running opportunities. But again, it’s within them. We’ve already seen it in most of the first 15 games.
- Home on the road: The Huskies are 11-0 at Hec Ed this season. They have won by an average of 25.1 points per game. Four of the school record-matching five 100-point games have been at home. They have won their last 10 home games by at least 10 points, one short of the school record accomplished twice, the last was the 1952-53 season. If you never watched them away from home, you might say what’s the problem? But something happens when they board a bus. They lose their swagger. They lose their identity. That shouldn’t happen, not with the upperclassman-dominated team that this is. When you think of swagger, you think of Thomas. He exudes it. He had it and flashed it during the opening Pac-10 weekend with those hard-earned wins at UCLA and USC. But confidence and self-assurance are fleeting. Cracks have appeared in the Thomas veneer over the past couple weeks. Last week in the three losses, he hit just 10 of 34 shots from the floor (29.4 percent), including 4 of 17 from three-point range (23.5 percent) and seemed tired, deflated. It’s hard to carry that swagger when you’re tossing up bricks. That also makes it difficult to engender swagger among teammates. These two home games this week may be just what Thomas needs to re-strut himself. The Huskies play Cal Thursday. Against the Bears in Berkeley Jan. 16, Thomas had his best career game, 27 points and 13 assists in a 92-71 victory. That was the Huskies playing at their optimum on the road. That is the last time they carried a swagger. Perhaps the Bears can re-gift it.
- Backup support: The loss of point guard Abdul Gaddy clearly is impacting this team now. He tore his ACL in practice Jan. 4 and is out for the season. For a time, Thomas disguised his absence with spectacular play, winning the Pac-10 Player of the Week honor twice. But he can’t sustain it. Opponents are hounding him, wearing him down, trying to limit his contributions. By doing so, they gain the edge over the Huskies, who are 5-4 since Gaddy went down. Thomas needs another effective ball-handler on the court with him. Overton should be that guy but he’s had an unproductive season in part because of three nagging injuries. Saturday against Oregon, Thomas and Overton were not on the court at the same time until inside of five minutes left and that’s when the Huskies played their best ball. But Romar can’t wear down both players. He has to keep one in reserve while the other is on the court. It would be a benefit for the Huskies to develop another reliable ball-handler, such as C.J. Wilcox or Scott Suggs, to take over at point for short spells. Then Romar can use Thomas and Overton more judiciously. He can even move Thomas over to shooting guard, removing the burden of running the team for brief periods. Any team can always use another ball-handler. Building depth also can be as simple as healing. Overton has been bothered by hamstring, tailbone and knee problems. Wilcox has had hip and head issues. Darnell Gant currently has a thigh bruise that limited him to five minutes Saturday. A healthy roster can go a long way in solving problems.
- Best is yet to come?: When a team loses three consecutive times, especially after expectations for a Pac-10 championship had been so high, it’s difficult to refocus and get back on that narrow path again. But as Romar said after Saturday’s loss, he believes things can turn in his team’s favor again. Feeding that belief is the fact that the Huskies play five of their final seven Pac-10 games at home, where they are 11-0 and, as outlined above, play at another level. They’ve played all the teams at least once. They know what to expect. They can plot out what’s ahead and what they need to do over the final four weeks of the regular season. In particular, they can better understand why they lost at Stanford three weeks ago and do what’s necessary to beat them Saturday. They will have a clear vision of the task ahead, with a eye on their Feb. 19 game at Arizona. That will have major conference title and NCAA Tournament implications. The Huskies understand a victory there likely will vault them to a chance for a big close since they finish with three games at home, Washington State, UCLA and USC.