By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – On the surface it seems the Huskies are at a distinct disadvantage in preparing for Stanford.
The Cardinal arrived in Seattle on Tuesday for Wednesday’s pivotal game against Washington (13-11, 5-6) at Alaska Airlines Arena (ESPN2, the Washington IMG Sports Network and here on GoHuskies.com with the game chat and streaming audio). Stanford (15-7, 6-4 Pac-12) hasn’t played in a full week, since an 11-point win at California.
The Huskies? They got back to campus at 2 a.m. Monday from a scheduled-for-television game Sunday night at Colorado. That was after their postgame charter flight departure was moved from a small airport nearer to snowy Boulder to almost an hour down the highway, south of Denver. Then came an unexpected fuel stop past midnight in deserted Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The players were off Monday but still had to wake on only a few hours of sleep for class. Before practice on Tuesday afternoon coach Lorenzo Romar used film cut-ups of the 91-65 loss at Colorado to make teaching points of needs on defense. The lone practice for the Huskies was Tuesday afternoon.
Yet through all that, Romar and his team don’t see this quick turnaround as a big deal.
First, it’s the tradeoff for the increased national exposure the league’s teams are getting with the Pac-12’s new TV contracts with ESPN, Fox Sports and the Pac-12 Networks.
“Yeah, that’s the exchange,” Romar said. “That’s something (we) coaches begged for, for a long time, and that’s the tradeoff.”
The second reason the minimal prep time may not be such a factor in Wednesday’s game, which begins UW’s crucial, hopefully season-saving stretch of five home games over the final seven contests of the regular season: The Huskies already know what they need to do to beat the Cardinal.
And to stage a season-saving rally into the Pac-12 tournament that begins in exactly one month in Las Vegas, for that matter.
“I think our guys are aware that we have to play our best basketball right now, coming down the stretch,” Romar said of their prospects for March. “If we play our best basketball things will take care of itself.”
Foremost, they have to play better defense. On the ball. On ball screens. On dribble penetration. On the help side. On perimeter shooters.
And Wednesday against Stanford’s front line of 6-foot-11 Stefan Nastic, 6-10 Dwight Powell and 6-7 Josh Huestis – Powell had 17 points and 10 rebounds in Stanford’s 79-67 home win over the Huskies on Jan. 15 and Huestis had 13 and 10 that night.
Asked for a common reason why the Huskies have lost three straight to put their season at a tipping point, rugged forward Desmond Simmons didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely, our defense, the intensity and urgency on defense,” he said. “The type of defense that we’ve played from what we know we can play, that’s definitely been a step backwards.”
The Huskies missed many defensive assignments on fast breaks against Colorado, and to a less-alarming extent at Utah on Thursday in Washington’s 78-69 loss there. A primary issue: those defenders who were the last men back on fast breaks often got out of position by trying low-percentage swipes at the ball instead of staying back to defend the basket. UW was also often slow or wrong in reacting to ball screens, taking long, incorrect routes around them to leave shooters open.
Defense. That is always THE key for this team, as it has been for years for UW under Romar. And it was the subject of that film breakdown the coach had for his team before Tuesday’s practice.
“Do it the way we are supposed to do it. Do it the way we’ve practiced,” was Romar’s Tuesday message on defense to his players.
The coach thinks coming home will inherently help that.
“Our biggest issues have come on the road,” Romar said, knowing UW is 2-7 away versus 11-2 at home.
“In my opinion, it is (a mental issue).
“At home, the crowd is behind you, maybe it helps you get over the fatigue. On the road, certain factors come into play. … Guys can get more distracted on the road during the game, when the crowd gets into it against you. When things don’t go well, mentally it’s harder to overcome for some guys.”
Guard Andrew Andrews agrees, saying that being back home may help one of the Huskies’ larger issues: mental toughness during in-game adversity.
“I feel that’s what happens to us on the road,” Andrews said, “we get rattled a little bit.”
There’s another thing the Huskies know they need to do to beat Stanford and start a run into the Pac-12 tournament and potentially beyond, besides defend far better.
Those not named C.J. Wilcox need to step up against a Stanford defense that is likely to again stack itself against the Huskies’ second-leading scorer.
In the first meeting Stanford sent waves of players -- sometimes three defenders -- at Wilcox when he had the ball, often out of zone-defense looks. Wilcox made just 4 of 13 shots and was 1 for 6 from 3-point range for nine points, 10 below his scoring average. It was his season low in points until he went 2 for 10 for just eight points Sunday at Colorado.
“If that’s how they are going to play us, obviously, other guys have to step up and make baskets. I felt like with what Stanford did the first time, they were daring the rest of us to shoot,” Romar said.
The Huskies will stay with the same lineup Wednesday they’ve had the last two games: Simmons with Perris Blackwell down low; Wilcox, Andrews and Nigel Williams-Goss outside, with versatile, scrapping big guard Mike Anderson off the bench.
If Stanford floods its defense onto Wilcox on the wing again, the dare to score falls on Williams-Goss and Andrews to make the Cardinal defend them more.
Williams-Goss spent much of the first half of the season deferring to teammates. But the freshman point guard has been far more aggressive since taking just five shots in 34 minutes in the win over Oregon on Jan. 23. In his last four games he is averaging 19.3 points while shooting 49 percent overall and 53 percent from 3-point range.
For the season, the native of the Portland, Ore., area is leading all Pac-12 freshmen in scoring (13.3 points per game), is second in assists (4.0), third in steals (1.1) and fifth in rebounding (4.3).
He says he isn’t necessarily looking to score more but merely doing what each game calls for and what each opponent is giving him. Based on its success last month against Washington, Stanford is likely to give Williams-Goss more chances to score.
Andrews has gone 8 for 36 (22 percent) from the field in the Huskies’ three consecutive losses. His scoring average has dipped from 12.8 to 12.0 points per game.
Yet he said Tuesday that his coaches are keeping the green shooting light on for him.
“I’m good. I’m always a confident player,” he said. “That’s what coaches have been telling me is to keep shooting. I’ve never thought, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be shooting the ball.’”
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Brace for fun – or possibly more – if you are going to watch the ESPN2 telecast of Wednesday’s game. The always-unique Bill Walton is on the call, with play-by-play man Dave Pasch. … The Huskies have won six consecutive games and 14 of their last 17 at Alaska Airlines Arena. … UW has nine wins in its last 11 games against Stanford. … In two starts this season, the last two games, Simmons is 8 for 11 (72.7 percent) from the field and is averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. In his previous 12 games off the bench Simmons averaged 3.6 points and 2.0 rebounds per game.