The University of Washington men’s basketball team will have to assault two fortresses this week, playing at Utah’s Hunstman Center Wednesday night (6 p.m., ESPN2), before swinging east to play at Colorado’s Coors Events Center Saturday (11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks). The teams have lost at home once each all season. In the words of The Princess Bride‘s Miracle Max: Have fun stormin’ the castle(s)!
Utah (17-7, 6-5 Pac-12) bested the Huskies 80-75 in overtime at Hec Edmundson Pavilion Jan. 24. The Utes’ seven-foot Austrian forward, Jakob Poeltl, scored 29 points and secured 10 rebounds against Washington (15-8, 7-4 Pac-12).
UW coach Lorenzo Romar said that Poeltl’s success came about largely as a result of Washington’s defensive miscues, errors that largely have been overcome.
“If you have breakdowns in a pack defense, you have flaws in your execution, not the defense itself,” he said Monday. “If the defense is executed properly, it’s serves you a lot better, but there are times where we simply have breakdowns.
“Our breakdowns are diminishing. We’re still trying to get this defense together. We’ve made great strides these last couple of games.”
The defense will have to be on point to stop Poeltl, who leads the Utes with 17.3 points per game.
Much of the Huskies’ offensive success will involve freshman forward Marquese Chriss. Chriss is averaging 18.3 points in his last three games while playing an average of 28.3 minutes.
Those numbers, up from Chriss’ season average of 12.4 ppg, are due to his increasing immunity to disqualification, built up through long exposure through the first half of the season. The leading fouler on the most frequently fouling team in Division I, Chriss becomes a big contributor late in games when he’s there.
“We are a different team with him in the game, there’s no question about it,” said Romar. “He rebounds, he scores, he can stretch the defense, he can guard all five players on the floor; he’s very unique in that regard.”
While the focus is on one challenge at a time, Saturday’s game against Colorado (17-7, 6-5 Pac-12). is different, because of sophomore guard George Scott.
Scott and the Buffaloes will be out to avenge a 95-83 loss to Washington Jan. 20. Scott is averaging 14.2 points a game, despite playing only 25 minutes on average.
Two road wins would mean a great deal to the Huskies, tied with No. 17 Arizona for third in the conference. It would also create separation between Washington and the Buffaloes and Utes, tied for fifth. Each of them may benefit from facing the Pac-12’s worst team,Washington State (9-14, 1-10 Pac-12), on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.
While sweeping a road series may seem like scaling the Cliffs of Insanity, Washington has seven regular season games left to distinguish itself from the unranked Pac-12 programs and possibly snag a bye in the first round of the conference tournament in Las Vegas. If they lose two, the Huskies may find themselves in quicksand when tickets to the big dance are distributed.