From a glance at the final box score, the Washington Huskies' 94-72 victory over the Portland Pilots Monday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion was just another in a series of blowout home wins for the Huskies to start the season. Not only did Washington end up winning by more than 20 points, the team's so-called "Human Victory Cigar," walk-on Brendan Sherrer, made his sixth appearance in eight games.
For nearly 32 minutes, however, Portland looked as if it might have found the formula to keep things close against the Huskies. Luke Sikma's score with 8:25 to play cut the Washington lead to six points to cap a 10-0 Pilots run that made the home crowd nervous. By slowing the game and packing the paint, Portland's defense had held the high-powered Husky offense to 22 points in the first 11-plus minutes of the second half.
Ultimately, Washington could not be held down for 40 minutes. Reserve Scott Suggs scored eight points to spark an 11-0 run that pushed the Huskies' lead back to a relatively comfortable 17 points, Washington's defense stiffened and that was it for the Pilots' hope of pulling off the upset.
That the Huskies could suffer through an off night against a solid mid-major opponent and still end up winning by 22 points might be the latest testament to how deep and talented this Washington team is. Eight games into the season, it appears to be the best Husky team of my lifetime, ahead of the 2004-05 squad that won the Pac-10 Tournament, was awarded a (generous) No. 1 seed by the selection committee and ultimately reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Consider this: Portland coach Eric Reveno opened the game in a 2-3 zone defense and spent much of the game playing zone despite the fact that Washington no longer struggles beyond the arc. In fact, the Huskies are the best three-point shooting team in the nation, a stat they padded by making 13 triples in 23 attempts on Monday.
The leader of the assault from beyond the arc has been redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox, who has been a revelation off the bench. Wilcox has knocked down threes at a 57.9 percent clip, averaging nearly three per game. Besides adding Wilcox and freshman Terrence Ross as reserve shooters, Washington has seen several returning players improve their range. Guard Abdul Gaddy and forwards Darnell Gant and Justin Holiday combined to make 13 triples in 50 attempts in 2009-10 (none of them by Gant). Already, those three players have hit a total of 33 three-pointers while shooting 58.9 percent from downtown. Those percentages are sure to drop, but defenses still must respect their newfound shooting ability. Besides centers Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz Ndiaye, every other player in Lorenzo Romar's 10-man rotation is a threat from long distance.
So why would Reveno consider a zone? Against smaller opponents, the Huskies are nearly as dangerous inside the arc. Gaddy's improved ability to create off the dribble gives Washington two dangerous penetrators, since Isaiah Thomas is one of the nation's best finishers at just 5'9". The Huskies have Bryan-Amaning to score off feeds from the team's guards and contribute the occasional post-up score while making nearly 60 percent of his twos. Bryan-Amaning and Ndiaye are also responsible for an offensive rebound percentage that ranks 27th in the NCAA, per KenPom.com.
Since there are no easy answers for stopping Washington, forcing the team to the perimeter and hoping for an off night might be the best strategy. The Huskies suffered through extended scoring droughts in their pair of losses to Kentucky and Michigan State in the Maui Invitational. There was nothing quite that dramatic in Monday's game, but Washington's offense did briefly grind to a stop at times, giving the Pilots a chance to stay close.
Portland also held the game to 71 possessions, four below the Huskies' offense and their second-slowest game of the season (the matchup with MSU had 70 possessions apiece). Since Washington is virtually unstoppable on the break, it is imperative to extend possessions, avoid live-ball turnovers and get back quickly.
That open-court ability helps neutralize what might be the Huskies' biggest weakness--defensive rebounding. Washington ranks 203rd in defensive rebound percentage in large part because the team spends so much time playing small with Holiday at power forward. It doesn't help that Bryan-Amaning has been significantly worse on the defensive glass this season, grabbing nearly as many offensive boards as defensive ones. But crashing the glass leaves an opponent vulnerable to fast breaks. Reveno sent most of his team back while allowing rebounding specialist Luke Sikma to track down second chances, which accounted for five of his 16 total rebounds Monday.
The Huskies' dominance against second-tier BCS teams (Texas Tech, Virginia) and competitive mid-majors (Portland, Long Beach State) has pushed them to fifth in the Pomeroy Rankings. Yet Washington still sits in the 20s in the polls (21st by the AP, 23rd by the coaches) because of the two sitting next to the loss column in its record. The nation's exposure to the Huskies came entirely in the last two games of the Maui Invitational, both of them losses.
Certainly, facing a higher level of competition made it clear that things would not be as easy for Washington, which scored 88.2 points per 100 possessions against the Wildcats and 101.4 against the Spartans, far and away their two worst performances of the season. Both games were close until the final minutes, when the Huskies struggled to consistently score. With the departure of Quincy Pondexter, finding reliable options in crunch time--especially when a bigger defender locks up Thomas, as Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins did--remains a potential issue that won't be addressed in the blowouts. Still, it would be a mistake to draw conclusions about Washington's ability to finish based on two games, one of which would have been tied in the final minute had Bryan-Amaning made both free throws against Michigan State.
The Huskies get another test Saturday, playing their first true road game (and only one of the non-conference schedule) at Texas A&M as part of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. The lesser known of the conference clashes started out with five Big 12 wins, but USC's upset of Texas has put the Pac-10 in position to tie and save some conference pride should Washington win and Stanford be able to upset Oklahoma State on Dec. 21. Win Saturday and the Huskies will start earning some national respect.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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