About the same time ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon was concluding, I was beginning a sporting marathon of my own--five consecutive days attending a sporting event. The first two days gave me a look at four of the eight Division I basketball programs in Washington and Oregon, with the University of Washington blowing out Eastern Washington at home and Seattle University upsetting Oregon State for the second consecutive year. Here are five thoughts combined over the two games.
1. Gaddy Maturing
The best news for the Huskies from Tuesday's game was the confident performance of sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy. Gaddy came to Montlake hyped as the best point guard in the 2009 recruiting class not named John Wall, but was unable to produce on a consistent basis as a freshman despite starting most of the year. Besides the occasional highlight-reel dish, Gaddy could not create offense because of the limited threat he posed as a scorer. On Tuesday, as at times throughout the early season, Gaddy flashed a much more rounded offensive game. He attempted three-pointers without hesitation (making as many--three--as during his entire freshman campaign), attacked the basket when driving lanes were available and finished with 13 points, tying his high game from 2009-10. As Gaddy established himself as a scorer, it will make him more dangerous as a distributor because defenses will have to play him honestly.
As important were Gaddy's contributions at the other end. The defensive lapses that marked his first season have been limited, if not eliminated. He took a charge against Eastern Washington and dove to force a held ball. As Husky beat writer Todd Dybas put it on Twitter, Gaddy played "gritty as opposed to pretty." That's a change every Washington star has made at some point in the past. Gaddy might even have gotten there more quickly than Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter, who finally bought into the importance of the little things during his junior year and took off from there.
2. Beavers Lacking Offensive Identity
Craig Robinson is associated with specific systems on offense (a Princeton attack) and defense (the 1-3-1 zone). Neither was on display for the Beavers during the second half of Wednesday's loss. It was understandable that Robinson opted to use a 2-3 zone on defense, since packing things in defensively in a zone had helped Cal Poly knock off Seattle U three days earlier. It was more difficult to explain what Oregon State was trying to do with the basketball.
To the extent the Beavers have used Princeton sets the last two years, it was largely with center Roeland Schaftenaar handling the ball in the high post. Schaftenaar's replacement, Joe Burton, is more of a traditional post player--despite his desire to make behind-the-back passes. Oregon State used more four-out, one-in sets with Burton in the middle and power forward Omari Johnson spacing the floor. What was curiously absent, however, was the motion and off-ball screening that make the Princeton offense work. Too often, the Beavers resorted to isolations with guards Jared Cunningham, Calvin Haynes and Lathen Wallace. They will need something more to create offense on a regular basis.
3. Help On the Way
The good news for Oregon State is that the team has a history of improving as the season goes on under Robinson. This time a year ago, the Beavers were losing at home to Sacramento State. Oregon State has looked like a different team in conference play the last two seasons; this time, the Beavers actually will be a different team. The qualifying saga of guard Roberto Nelson, a highly touted 2009 recruit who had to sit out the entire 2009-10 due to eligibility issues, finally appears to be at an end. Nelson is expected to become eligible at the end of the semester, which would allow him to make his Oregon State debut on Dec. 12. The Beavers would have four games against lesser competition to integrate Nelson, who has been practicing with the team, before the start of conference play.
4. Seattle U Attacks the Zone
The biggest issue for the Redhawks in the early part of the season has been a notable lack of outside shooting. Freshman Sterling Carter, the team's surprising leading scorer, has made 15 three-pointers in four games. Everyone else has combined for nine. No wonder, then, that teams have been quick to go to zone against Seattle U. The Redhawks' offense shut down over the first 10 minutes of the second half after Robinson switched into the 2-3, scoring just 11 points while players turned the ball over or settled for outside shots.
Then, without warning, everything changed. Cameron Dollar settled his team and Seattle outscored Oregon State 29-16 over the game's last 10 minutes thanks to improved execution of its zone offense. Point guard Cervante' Burrell made the defense pay for sagging off him, knocking down a pair of 17-foot jumpers. The Redhawks were also able to get the ball to Alex Jones in the post after a series of poor entry passes earlier in the game. Jones, SU's best interior scorer, scored nine of his 11 points over the last six minutes. Lastly, the Redhawks beat the zone by scoring quickly before Oregon State could get them into a half-court set. Transition defense is crucial against Seattle U, which continues to play at the nation's fastest pace (80 possessions per 40 minutes).
5. The Great 7-Foot Hope
An interesting storyline has developed with the Huskies in the wake of last spring's loss to West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. The notion, pushed along by Lorenzo Romar, is this: Washington's late-round NCAA losses have all come to teams with more size. Hence the importance being placed on newcomer Aziz N'Diaye, a 7-foot shot-blocker from the Senegal by way of the College of Southern Idaho. I think all the focus on size might obscure the fact that these opponents (a group that includes Louisville in 2005, Connecticut in 2006 and Purdue in 2009) were also generally better than the Huskies overall. Two reached the Final Four, and the 2006 East Coast Huskies might have been the most talented team in recent NCAA history to fall short of that destination. With the notable exception of UConn, they also generally relied more on length than height.
That's not to say, of course, that N'Diaye won't help Washington. Size is in fact a valuable commodity for Romar, who has just three true big men on the roster. N'Diaye has yet to come across anyone remotely near his own size, but his performance thus far has been encouraging. N'Diaye will have to moderate his aggressiveness as a shot blocker to avoid foul trouble, but his size in the paint is problematic for opposing teams. What is worth watching is N'Diaye's rebounding. He had 15 boards against overmatched McNeese State in as many minutes, punctuating his recoveries by screaming loud enough to be heard in the upper reaches of Hec Edmundson Pavilion, but followed that up with just two rebounds in 18 minutes against the Eagles. Rebounding will probably be the determining factor as to how productive N'Diaye is for the Huskies.
Stay tuned to Kevin Pelton's quest to see every D I team in Washington and Oregon live. Up next: The Portland Pilots, who face the Kentucky Wildcats at the Rose Garden Friday.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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