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Unleashed: Inside The Huskiesí Season Revival
Release: 01/15/2014
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It’s still early. And, yes, the Huskies have had fast Pac-12 starts before only to fizzle late. But the two biggest keys to UW (11-6, 3-1 Pac-12) sustaining this revival and belief are entirely within their control: More defense; and more free-throw shooting.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE The belief is back.

These fluctuating Huskies left campus Tuesday for games Wednesday night at California and Saturday night at Stanford enjoying their most sustained momentum in 12 months, since a 4-0 start to league play last season.

The win over No. 15 Colorado on Sunday, UW’s first over a ranked team since Isaiah Thomas’ “cold-blooded” shot beat Arizona in the 2011 Pac-10 tournament final, means the Huskies are 14-2 during the first four games of the Pac-12 dating to January 2011.

But we all know it’s not how you start.

It’s how the Huskies (11-6, 3-1 Pac-12) finish over the next eight weeks that will determine whether this rousing, resilient rally from injuries, illness, a defection, changed systems and losses in November and December will lead the Dawgs to their first NCAA tournament in three seasons.

“We were 4-0 last year at this time. And it didn’t happen the way we wanted,” Romar said Monday of those Huskies that finished 9-9 in the league, 18-16 overall and in the National Invitation Tournament.

“So we’ve got to keep rollin’.”

At first glance that would seem to mean C.J. Wilcox needs to keep rollin’. His career-high 31 points on a career-best seven made 3-pointers Sunday in beating Colorado – plus the senior’s 20.5 points per game, second in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the nation – catch all the attention. And, yes, Wilcox’s scoring will go a long way to determining whether this Husky turnaround will last.

But the two traits this team are showing are the larger factors in determining where Washington ends up in March. Each factor – and thus this season -- is entirely within their control.

Keep playing stingy defense. And keep making those foul shots.

A year after he remade Washington’s offense into John Wooden-esque, high-post sets in the half court instead of the Huskies’ freelancing, guard-motion dashes into the lane of the previous decade, Romar has reinvented UW’s defense over the last six weeks.

Many of you have been howling about Romar not leading the Huskies into the last two NCAA tournaments. Well, what has happened recently hasn’t been by accident. It hasn’t been through a rouge insurgency by the players.

The coach has changed his ways.

After the season’s first five games Romar and his staff assessed how opponents were exploiting the NCAA’s new emphasis on calling any defensive contact as fouls. UC-Irvine, Indiana and Long Beach State, to name three successful foes, repeatedly drove on the Huskies into the lane for scores or foul shots.

Those three teams combined for an alarming 160 points in the paint, resulting in three of UW’s six losses.

So Romar changed Washington’s defense in late November from 11 seasons of aggressively denying passes outside to wings to denying dribble penetration and switching on ball screens into the lane instead.

“I thought our guys did a good job of staying in front (of dribble drivers),” Romar said following the 71-54 win over Colorado on Sunday, a season-low in points for CU.

Keep playing stingy defense. And keep making those foul shots.

“That’s what our defense has been doing. As opposed to playing in the passing lanes to get deflections we play in the driving lanes to prevent penetration. We give up the pass; they can pass ball around. But whenever it’s a penetrating situation, we try to provide help now.”

The change has changed the Huskies’ season. As always with Romar’s teams, it starts and ends with defense.

“Oh, it’s big. You can see guys taking more ownership on the defensive end of the floor. Every day. Every week,” Romar said.

“And then when you are rewarded with the win, that continues to increase that attitude and belief.”


AWAKENED IN NEW YORK

At the time, two losses in 19 hours to Indiana and Boston College on Nov. 21 and 22 at the 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden looked like a lost week in New York.

But this season’s awakening began in “The City that Never Sleeps.”

Indiana shot 52 percent and scored 54 of its whopping 102 points in the paint during its 18-point win over the Huskies in the 2K Sports Classic semifinals. Huskies jumped out on Indiana’s shooters and wings, and those happy Hoosiers sped them past repeatedly.

The next afternoon, Boston College penetrated for layups and kick-out passes to lonely 3-point shooters. BC shot 56 percent, scored 40 of its 89 points in the paint, and made eight of its first 11 shots from bonus range. UW allowed 191 points in the two losses over 20, startling hours.

Senior C.J. Wilcox's 20.5 points per game, second in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the
nation, will go a long way in determining whether this Husky turnaround will last.


Romar studied and re-studied the MSG game films on his iPad on the nearly six-hour flight from Newark, N.J., back to Seattle. His team was already in flux defensively and otherwise. It lost 6-foot-10 post Jernard Jarreau to reconstructive knee surgery plus 6-7 scrapper and rugged defender Desmond Simmons to arthroscopic knee surgery before the season began. Forward Shawn Kemp Jr. was beginning his attempt to play through Graves Disease in his thyroid that sapped his energy and his game. Then guard Hikeem Stewart left the program in search of a transfer.

That forced Romar into a shortened rotation of seven players and mostly four guards, with Blackwell as the low post and 6-foot-4 Mike Anderson, a transfer from Moberly Area Community College in Missouri before this season, as a de factor small forward.

Beginning with the Nov. 26 win over Montana, after two practices following the team’s return from New York, the Huskies began switching off ball screens rather than fighting through them. They began helping more off the ball and sagging into the lane to deny drives inside.

The change came midstream. So it – like most of this season for Washington – has been a work in progress.

Sunday, Washington held Colorado to 35-percent shooting. UW forced CU’s season high of 20 turnovers, many of them on steals by defenders helping on switches off ball screens. Against Utah, the Huskies held the nation’s top field-goal percentage team (at 53.2) to just 41.5 percent shooting. The Utes’ 57 points that night at Alaska Airlines Arena was 28.5 points lower than their season average coming into Seattle.

Arizona State managed just 23 points on 29-percent shooting in the first half Jan. 2 in Tempe. Washington seized a 17-point lead by halftime and cruised to an encouraging, 11-point win to begin the Pac-12 schedule.

So why is this new defense suddenly clicking in conference play?

“I would say experience,” sophomore guard Andrew Andrews said. “The more games you play the more used to rotating and doing things that we weren’t doing at the beginning of the season. Now we’re just to a point where we’re not even calling out things. We just know where to be. There were a couple plays where (we) rotated to the right positions and we were able to just keep (guys) out of the lane.

“We have a new defense, so it’s just tough. I mean, it was tough for me; I don’t know if it was tough for C.J. But it’s just different.”

Waaaay different.


INSIDE ROMAR’S LATEST MOVE

The coach had demanded for 12 years that his Dawgs hound the ball outside and deny even the most basic passes to the wings. Every pass was attacked like the game depended on it, and the constant pressure by Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton, et al, created a decade of turnovers, fast- break points and unparalleled, sustained basketball success at Washington.

“It all starts with the defense,” Huskies veteran assistant coach Brad Jackson said. “We are understanding more, helping more and we are more cohesive on defense now.”

But these new Huskies were proving to not be as deep, as quick or as savvy outside as those earlier versions. When they tried in November to deny guards far from the basket, the new emphasis on defensive-contact fouls this season buried them into deep, debilitating foul trouble.

When taller UC-Irvine upset Washington in Seattle on Nov. 14, Andrews and the versatile, selfless Anderson fouled out. Blackwell and freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss each played with four fouls that night. That was 80 percent of UW’s top-five contributors with at least four fouls in an 86-72 loss.

When UW lost big to Indiana Anderson and Kemp both fouled out. Andrews played that night with four fouls.

Tellingly, in the 13 games since the Huskies changed their defense, no Husky starter has fouled out.

Washington averaged 23 fouls per game in the first five games of the season with the old, deny-the-wings defense. Since Romar changed the scheme, UW has averaged 18 fouls per game.

Some of that is the Huskies and every other team adjusting to the officials’ new emphasis on calling more fouls. But much of it is because Washington is playing a more unified defense of helping off the ball screens and packing the lane, instead of getting beaten outside and chasing into fouls on foes’ dribble drives into a previously open lane.

“We are trying to protect the paint more,” Romar explained. “Because of the rules, I just found that maybe we play a little tentative outside.

“Now we are more in the driving lanes instead of the passing lanes.”

Indeed, Washington was last in the Pac-12 entering conference play allowing 79.2 points per game. The Huskies are allowing just 61.8 points per game through four league games, tied for third in the conference. Their field-goal percentage defense in league games of .392 is second in the Pac-12 only to top-ranked Arizona’s .369.

Want more defense? (Romar does).

The Huskies have held each of their last five opponents without a basket for a span of at least 5 minutes. They kept Colorado without a field goal for 5:38 of the second half; Utah went 7:14 without one in the first half of their 59-57 win Jan. 8; top-ranked Arizona went blank for 5:34 of the first half while UW took a surprising lead in Tucson; Arizona State went 9:14 between the first and second halves before getting a bucket against Washington Jan. 2 in UW’s 76-65 win in Tempe; and Hartford went 8:27 without a basket in the first half of the last non-conference game, a 73-67 win for the Huskies on Dec. 29.

“It all starts with the defense,” Huskies veteran assistant coach Brad Jackson said. “We are understanding more, helping more and we are more cohesive on defense now.”

Jackson pointed at the stat sheet in the tunnel outside the Huskies’ locker room Sunday following the win over Colorado. He highlighted the column containing CU’s 3-point shooting. It read “1 for 12.”

Even with an increased emphasis on denying drives into the lane, the Huskies are also becoming quicker and more effective at jumping out on perimeter shooters. Opponents are not getting nearly the wide-open looks that Boston College got in its bombs-away destruction of UW in November. The first four Pac-12 teams to play Washington are a mere 6 for 50 from 3-point range. That’s 12 percent. Nobody else in the league is holding foes under 21 percent from deep.


PUTTING THE “FREE” BACK IN FREE THROWS

The other reason Washington may win more, close Pac-12 games this season: Free-throw shooting.

Refreshing, dependable, it’s-about-time free-throw shooting.

Through 17 games Washington is making 76.6 percent of its foul shots, a great trend when officials are calling more fouls and providing more free chances to score. The team foul-shooting record for a season is 74.9 percent, in 2005-06. Only one other time has UW been better than 74 percent in any one other season – ever.

The two Dawgs who shoot the most free throws, Wilcox and Andrews, are at 89 and 77 percent, respectively, from the line. Wilcox is second in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the country in free-throw percentage. Freshman Darin Johnson, a determined if not always wise slasher, has made 40 of 46 free throws, a tidy 86-percent rate.

It’s a timely sea change in Seattle. The Huskies have been maddening at the line for years, making just 68, 62 and 67 percent of its free throws as a team over the three previous seasons. Teams that were perhaps more talented than this one – think Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and Wilcox together two seasons ago – missed the NCAA tournament largely because they missed too many free throws at the wrong times late in games.

No need to remind you the reason Ross, Wroten and top-seeded UW lost by two to ninth-seeded Oregon State in the opening round of the 2012 Pac-12 tournament. Missed foul shots in that one, and in the regular-season finale at UCLA days earlier, helped make the Huskies (14-4 in the Pac-12 that season) the first regular-season champion of a major conference to miss the NCAA tournament. Ross and Wroten became first-round picks in the NBA drafts months later.

Last season, UW was 4-4 in league games decided by five points or fewer. That included the 80-77 loss in overtime to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament last March 14, one night before the Ducks won the Pac-12 automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Washington settled for another, unwanted NIT.

Now it’s on to these tests at streaky Cal, which has beaten Stanford, swamped Oregon in Eugene and rallied past Oregon State to begin conference play; then at Stanford, which has the conference’s third-leading scorer in Chasson Randle (19.5 points per game).

These two games won’t define the Huskies’ season.

No, defense and free-throw shooting will determine whether this revival lasts.

“I mean, it’s huge. It’s working. I think every week in December since when we changed the defense we’ve gotten better and better,” said Wilcox, who is far more expansive after games talking about his team’s defense than his continued scoring.

“You could see entering the Pac-12 season we were going to be better defensively. Now we are getting the results.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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