For a while now the conventional wisdom on the Pac-10 has been that it is, all together now, "down." Whether it's because the NBA keeps raiding the conference and taking away its most talented freshmen and sophomores, the fact that the league's seen an unusual amount of coaching turnover in recent years, bad luck, or all of the above, the Pac-10 received just two NCAA tournament bids last year. That's not how major conferences are supposed to operate.
True, one of those bids last year went to Washington, and the Huskies did make it to the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual Final Four participant West Virginia. But with the loss of their best player, Quincy Pondexter, and near-misses on two nearby McDonald's All-Americans (Portland product Terrence Jones chose to play for John Calipari at Kentucky; Kent, Washington, native Joshua Smith took his act down the coast to UCLA), expectations were relatively modest for Lorenzo Romar's team coming into 2010-11. Washington was ranked No. 17 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.
It may be time to revisit those expectations. It's still early, of course, but at the moment the 12-3 Huskies are treating the Pac-10 like their plaything, outscoring league opponents by a dominant 0.23 points per possession. (Quick comparison: Duke last year outscored the ACC by 0.18 points per trip on their way to an eventual national title.) At 4-0, Washington is already the only team that's unbeaten in Pac-10 play. And while Duke's loss at Florida State this week amply demonstrates that no team is invincible, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Huskies to fall out of first place in the Pac-10. They might be there a while. Here's why:
This may be the best offense in the country.
Ordinarily turnovers and offensive rebounds are a "pick your poison" duo. Teams that are great at taking care of the ball (Wisconsin, BYU) tend to be not very good on the offensive glass. Conversely teams that are great at rebounding their own misses (Kansas State, Texas A&M) tend to be not very good at holding onto the rock.
But this year Washington (albeit alongside teams like Pitt and Connecticut) is turning this set of tendencies on its head. The Huskies are ferocious on the offensive glass but they also commit very few turnovers. In Pac-10 play Romar's team has rebounded 40 percent of its own misses while giving the ball away on just 17 percent of its possessions. The result, of course, is a ton of shots from the field.
Inside-outside versatility? U-Dub's got that covered.
Speaking of tendencies, Washington's shots from the field tend to go in the basket. On the season the Huskies have drained 53 percent of their twos and 41 percent of their threes. The bulk of the credit there goes to the proven inside-outside combination of junior Isaiah Thomas and senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
Combo guard Thomas has improved his accuracy from the field in each succeeding season, to the point where he now makes more than half his twos despite a listed height of just 5-8. And the 6-9 Bryan-Amaning is a highly effective interior scorer, one who makes 58 percent of his twos. Both players draw six fouls for every 40 minutes they play. If Thomas and Bryan-Amaning could just make their free throws (they're shooting a combined 65 percent at the line) this offense would go from merely "great" to "truly scary."
Washington is more than just their inside-outside duo.
It's amazing to think that just a few months ago Romar was envisioning a roster that could possibly have three McDonald's All-Americans: Terrence Jones, Joshua Smith, and 2009 honoree Abdul Gaddy. We've seen that Jones and Smith chose to play elsewhere; and now Romar doesn't even have Gaddy, who's out for the season after tearing his ACL in practice on January 4. And yet here we are, touting Washington as the Pac-10's best team even without Gaddy or any of those other McDonald's-approved players. How can this be?
While Romar would be well advised to keep his remaining talent healthy (Washington is now down to nine scholarship players), he is fortunate that said talent is so, well, talented. Senior Venoy Overton has the highest assist rate on the team. Senior Justin Holiday has been uncannily accurate from both sides of the arc in a supporting role. Freshman Terrence Ross erupted for 25 points in just 27 minutes against Oregon last week. And freshman C.J. Wilcox is shooting 46 percent from the perimeter. Say this for Romar, he has the deepest thin roster in the country.
Sadly, however, there's a note of uncertainty attached to this team going forward, a note that reminds us this is just a game after all. A "prominent" member of the team has been accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in Seattle on January 9. The police investigation is ongoing, and Romar has said that he will gather more information before deciding on any disciplinary action.
We can't know what the next few days or weeks are going to bring Washington's way in terms of the off-court things that truly matter. But in the purely frivolous on-court matter of basketball, the recent past shows the Huskies are tops in a conference that's been down.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John also mints "deep thin"-brand oxymorons on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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