Feb. 11, 2011
By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - To hear the Huskies tell it, it wasn't just that they re-dedicated themselves to defense following their three-game lapse.
It was that they returned Thursday night to their signature, in-your-shirt, man-to-man defense for 37½ of the 40 minutes in Washington's 109-77 annihilation of California. That came after more time spent playing an uncharacteristic zone during their three-game losing streak on the road last week.
The players think there's a link to all that time spent in man defense against Cal and Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar saying Friday that his team played with the requisite intensity for "38½, 39 minutes" of Thursday's win.
"That's big for us," point guard and catalyst Isaiah Thomas said of returning to UW's renowned, full-court pressure. "We know we are better in a man-to-man defense.
"It all starts with defense," said Thomas, who Friday was on the Naismith Award's midseason list of the top 30 college players in the country.
The Dawgs got it back for a night. Now, can they sustain that heat when they host Stanford Saturday at 5:30 p.m.?
Fox Sports Northwest has the telecast. The Washington IMG College network has the live radio broadcast. And we'll again have a live game chat, statistics and streaming audio here on GoHuskies.com.
Romar doesn't think maintaining motivation or effort will be a problem for his Huskies (16-7, 8-4 Pac-10) against the Cardinal (13-10, 6-6). UW is 1½ games behind Arizona for first place in the conference, with a showdown looming with the Wildcats in Tucson next weekend.
Arizona plays at last-place Arizona State Sunday night.
"Coming off the heels of a win but prior to that a three-game losing streak, that's got to be the motivation. You are circling every game now because you've dug yourself a hole," Romar said Friday afternoon, while Stanford was practicing on the Alaska Airlines Arena floor.
"I think we'll be dialed in."
Plus, the Cardinal - which won by 13 at Washington State Thursday -- upset the Huskies 58-56 last month at Stanford while holding the Dawgs to their lowest point total of the season. It was UW's first conference loss. The Huskies led by 11 in the second half, then melted down in their own mess of not boxing out for rebounds and missing many easy shots in the final minutes.
"I felt like we had so many chances to win. It just came down to execution," said Thomas, who had 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, with seven assists, that night at Stanford. "We'll make sure that doesn't happen on Saturday."
The way they played defense against Cal, the Huskies appear poised to unleash more man-to-man pressure against Stanford, with Thomas and defensive whiz Venoy Overton picking up opposing guards 80-some feet from the basket.
The Huskies' stifling defense to create fast-break chances that left gaping holes in Cal's rushed, unprepared defense. UW shot 57 percent overall and made a school record-tying 17 shots from 3-point range while blowing out Cal.
But a forgotten fact of Washington's loss at Stanford Jan. 13 was that its man-to-man defense was skittish that night. It allowed so many Cardinal players to roam free down the lane or along the baseline, Romar went to a 2-3 zone late in the first half and again in the second, with 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye enforcing his will and mammoth wingspan in the lane. That's when Washington rallied into the 11-point lead it eventually blew.
So there could be more zone Saturday than UW used against Cal. And there is very likely to be more zone defense from the Huskies on the upcoming road trip to Arizona State Thursday and Arizona next Saturday. U of A made just 40 percent of its shots last month while losing in Seattle - when Romar went zone for much of that night.
In other words, how much zone Washington plays depends on whom the Huskies are playing. Cal happened to be a great matchup, maybe UW's best matchup in the league, for playing man-to-man. That coincided with the urgent need to be more intense after the three consecutive losses and - voila! - Washington produced a runaway victory when it needed it most.
But last weekend at Oregon, Romar feared the versatility of Oregon big man Joevan Catron and the fact Catron could draw N'Diaye outside if UW stayed in man. So he went to more zone.
"The thing about the man in certain games, certain teams' offensive system put you in a position you can disrupt them and take away what they're doing -- or attempt to take away what they're doing," Romar said after the win over Cal.
Romar and the Huskies know they will have to play zone more later this season, such as against bigger teams in potential NCAA tournament matchups or if there is foul trouble on N'Diaye or fellow big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning.
Not that Thomas necessarily loves that.
"Yeah, I mean, zone is a little weird. You can't really pressure in it," he said.
"But I like man-to-man defense, and getting out there disrupting things."