Feb. 9, 2011
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SEATTLE - Teammates lounged. Some listened to headphones or texted. All were waiting silently inside the Eugene Airport's departure area Saturday night to fly home, following the Huskies' third road loss in six days, at Oregon.
I saw one Husky studying - game film. Senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning was shoulder to shoulder with assistant coach Paul Fortier, both too big for the tiny padded airport chairs, both going over teaching points as their fingers traced the screen of a laptop computer.
That was an hour or so after the 6-foot-9 forward led Washington with 21 points against the Ducks.
Yes, the now-unranked Huskies (15-7, 7-4 Pac-10) are humbled having gone from first to third place in the Pac-10 in less than a week. And yes, they are on task, motivated to once again defy their doubters and make a late-season push deep into the NCAA tournament.
Practices this week have been intense and rededicated to in-your-face defense, leaving coach Lorenzo Romar to say in advance of Thursday night's home game against California: "If it's any indication how we practiced, we've moved on."
"We know how good we can be," star point guard Isaiah Thomas says. "We're just trying to get back to playing defense - and really playing Husky basketball."
How rededicated are these Dawgs? Thomas, who tweets more than a bird in a tree on a summer morning, even swore off Twitter this week. That left his 12,518 followers wanting.
Thomas says he'll be back online March 12 - which happens to be the day of the Pac-10 tournament championship game.
"WE WILL be playing that day!" Thomas wrote while announcing his online hiatus.
There are reasons to believe he's right.
Sure, about the only thing people around here are saying this week as much as "What's wrong with the Huskies?" is "Christina Aguilera needs to learn the National Anthem."
"I think it's a fair criticism," Romar said, meaning the one of his team, not of the singer who fouled up at the Super Bowl. "You lose three in a row, people are going to ask, `What's wrong with the Huskies?'
Then the coach deadpanned: "I think it's unfair that people say we should end the season now because we aren't any good."
Hard to believe that only 11 days ago Washington was the No. 18 team in the country and 7-1 in the Pac-10, on the fast track to the conference's regular season title. Hard to believe the Huskies no longer control whether they win the league. They could win their final seven league games, including at first-place Arizona next weekend, but if the Wildcats (8-2 in the Pac-10) don't lose at least one other game Washington can't get ahead of them.
But that's what happens when you don't play defense on the ball or in the lane, and when your answer to opponents packing in zone defenses is missing 58 3-point shots in three ugly losses.
And yes, winning the Pac-10 regular season title still matters. When I asked Thomas that underneath Matthew Knight Arena minutes after UW's 81-76 loss at Oregon, he said winning that title "is huge."
Yet that's the beauty of college basketball: A team doesn't have to win its league to achieve its ultimate goal of a deep run through the NCAA tournament.
The Huskies can still get themselves into good position for March, Pac-10 title or not. Five of UW's final seven conference games before the conference tournament will be inside Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion - the winningest current home floor in the country. Washington is at 858 victories and counting since the building opened in 1927.
The Huskies are 11-0 at home this season, and have won 12 consecutive home games by 10 points or more, a school record.
The first of those home tests is Thursday at 6 p.m. against Cal and Saturday at 5:30 p.m. against Stanford. Fox Sports Net television and the Washington IMG College radio network will broadcast both games, and we will again host live game chats with statistics and streaming audio here at GoHuskies.com.
Yes, the urgency is on.
"The guys do see that if this unravels anymore, we could be in deep trouble," Romar said. "I think that's part of the reason why if a team is capable, they bounce back. If they are capable and have any character, they are able to bounce back."
For all the doom people want to attach to the defeats at Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon last week, these Huskies have been here before.
About this time last year, actually.
Three of the current starters and pretty much this same team - minus the departed Quincy Pondexter and this season's newcomers Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilcox and Aziz N'Diaye - began the 2010 Pac-10 season ranked 17th in the country, then started 1-3 and 3-5 in the league. UW lost three straight conference games in January.
The fourth of those five league losses came at the buzzer at UCLA. Romar saw the fire had returned to the Huskies that night, and thought "OK, we've turned it around."
The Huskies blew out Washington State by 28 in its next league home game and won nine consecutive games through the Pac-10 tournament title victory over Cal.
"Last year, we came with a fire at the end of the year," Bryan-Amaning said. "It was like, `If we lose this game, we don't think we're making the (NCAA) tournament.'
" I think that motivated us throughout the end of last year. And I think it has the possibility of doing it again this year."
Any signs of that fire now?
"I saw the same thing at Oregon," Romar said, noting the Huskies competed far better than they did the previous game at Oregon State.
The only other time the Huskies have lost three consecutive league games all on the road under Romar was in 2006. Then, it just clicked. Romar said his team got back into a flow - all the way into another Sweet 16 of the NCAAs.
The common denominator to those late-season turnarounds? More intensity on defense.
"We tell our team Day One when we start talking about defense -- because we put our defense in before our offense in - `You want to fast break, you want to be able to play, have fun, enjoy yourselves? It's a lot of hard work, because it starts on the defensive end,'" Romar said.
"So, if we're not guarding like we need to be guarding, it hurts just about every aspect of our game. We want to be a team that if we are shooting 30 percent, or 35 percent, and on that particular night things aren't going well, we can still win the game because we are getting stops on the defensive end."
Romar's UW teams since he arrived in 2002 have been renowned nationally for full-court, man-to-man defense that relentlessly attacks in waves. Recently, that signature D has faded as Romar has mixed in a 2-3 zone. Many Huskies followers think the zone has zapped their team of its aggressiveness.
The coach shakes his head at that.
"If you are winning whatever you are doing, it's a great idea. If you are losing, the same thing is a terrible idea," Romar said.
He's gone zone, perhaps more than ever, to help get through games in which the Huskies are in foul trouble inside the whistle-happy Pac-10, to offset matchup problems such as with versatile Oregon big man Joevan Catron and, as Romar says, to give opponents "a different look."
He's also done it to make the Huskies more versatile in March.
The Huskies recruited 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye from the College of Southern Idaho, the first true lane dominator that tall Romar has had at UW, to combat the size that has beaten down previous Huskies deep in NCAA tournaments.
Playing zone is also Romar's counter to what opponents did earlier this season: Spread out the Dawgs' man-to-man defense to force the 7-footer outside to defend away from the basket.
The 2-3 zone keeps N'Diaye inside, where Romar signed him to be.
"Aziz N'Diaye had nine rebounds in that (Oregon) game, and many of them were in the zone because he was around the basket," Romar said. "If you play man, he's playing Catron and is running around, he doesn't rebound as well. In a zone, he's packed in. He's right there. He can rebound, and you can go.
"So it can help, sometimes - sometimes - the transition game."
Look for Cal to get more man-to-man looks from UW. Stanford may get some zone, since the Huskies used it a lot to grab an 11-point lead in the second half down in Palo Alto last month, before losing late because they stopped rebounding and missed easy shots.
Arizona is likely to see some zone next weekend from Washington. Romar noted his team played a lot of zone against the Wildcats while holding them to 40-percent shooting and winning on Jan. 20.
"We're not a zone team. At times, games have been close and we've zoned for a 3-minute stretch and it allowed us to stretch and we were able to separate," Romar said. "We prefer to play man."
Like his coach, Thomas doesn't think the zone is slowing down the offense. And he's the guy with his foot on the team's accelerator.
"It starts on the defensive end," said the junior and candidate for national point guard and player of the year. "Once we get stops, it makes our offense flow that much more easily. Those three games, we didn't get stops. That made the offense look worse."
So Thursday night, we'll see if these Dawgs have internalized the need for more defensive intensity. If their feet are moving, the lane is clogged and hands are in passing lanes, March could be wondrous after all.
"We know what we have to do," Romar said. "We just have to make sure we pay attention, go out and do it."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of 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.