Jan. 20, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Christmas came twice last year for Charmaine Barlow.
The other, unusual time was April 3. That was the day Kevin McGuff arrived from rugged, winning Xavier to be Washington's new coach.
"Yeah, it was. When I first heard he was hired here I was like, `This is crazy. How his teams play is exactly how I play basketball!'" the senior lockdown defender said before her Huskies (10-6, 2-4 Pac-12) left for games at California, a 71-47 loss Thursday, and Saturday afternoon at No. 4 Stanford .
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Barlow, a 5-foot-10 guard with hands as quick as her feet and her tenacity, said when McGuff first arrived at UW "I had a few talks with him and told him, `I am a defensive player. Ask anyone at this school, I play defense.'"
McGuff told the feisty Barlow her style reminded him of those who led his Xavier teams he led to a 214-73 record in nine seasons at the private school in Cincinnati, including 41-1 in his last three seasons inside the Atlantic 10.
Behind a stifling, relentless defensive style that often made opponents turn the ball over beginning in their pregame layup line, Xavier went to the NCAA tournament six times in McGuff's nine years there, including the last five seasons. The Musketeers had made the NCAAs just four times in their history before he arrived. His 2009-10 Xavier team came within a last-second basket of Stanford of reaching the Final Four.
So when McGuff arrived at UW to begin instilling the same defensive philosophies in the Huskies, Barlow saw it almost as a godsend.
"I thought, `This is a perfect match, really, for my senior year,'" Barlow said.
Now, ask McGuff for the best defender on his Huskies and he replies without hesitation: "Char."
Barlow's pressure on the perimeter and sturdy inside defense led by senior Mackenzie Argens have been the reasons Washington is 18th in the country in field-goal percentage defense, which McGuff and his staff believes is the truest indicator of defensive effectiveness. UW is allowing opponents to shoot 34.1 percent through 16 games, just behind Arizona State for best in the Pac-12.
How important is that statistic to these Huskies? They have been among the top 10 nationally this season in field-goal percentage defense, sparking its fast start to McGuff's first season.
And when they don't get back on D and don't keep foes out of the game, Thursday night happens.
Cal bulled inside for layups and 52 points in the paint, the most Washington had allowed in there all season. The Bears made 60 percent of their shots in the second half to blow open an eight-point game.
Afterward, McGuff regretted the lack of transition defense as the key to the loss.
"It's still evolving," the coach said this week of the Huskies' defense, noting he has yet to completely install his system. "We've gone more zone this year than we have in the past, to give us more balance."
That change has come based on personnel, and on the fact leading scorer Regina Rogers remains hobbled by what's become a chronically sore hamstring.
At its best, McGuff's defensive system resembles the half-court, "pack line" schemes well-known through the decades of success Dick Bennett and his son Tony have had using it. They've won with the system in the men's game at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin, Washington State and now with Tony leading Virginia.
And it's worked in the women's game with McGuff leading Xavier to national prominence. He learned it while developing a close bond with Xavier men's coach Sean Miller, now the men's coach at Arizona.
McGuff's defensive scheme doesn't emphasize steals. That relatively risky approach can leave the defense out of position, not to mention out to lunch against some of the country's best point guards
McGuff's way seeks to eliminate layups, contest shots, force teams to take shots in areas on the floor where they are not entirely comfortable -- and then rebound, to eliminate easy put-back points for the opposition.
"One year at Xavier, we were close to breaking the all-time record for field goal percentage defense, but we got beat in the first round of the NCAA Tournament," said Huskies assistant coach Mike Neighbors, who came with McGuff from XU.
"I'm not trying to say that if you lead the nation in (field goal percentage defense) you're automatically going to win the NCAA tournament. But I do think you have to reach a certain level on the defensive end to give yourself a chance to beat the best teams."
Neighbors has studied the teams that have reached the Sweet 16 and Final Four in decades' worth of NCAA women's tournaments. The one common denominator of those top teams: They were also among the top 25 in the country in field-goal percentage defense.
"Scoring defense is as much about how you play offensively as it is how you play defensively. To me, percentages give you a little bit clearer indication of how you are executing your defensive schemes in the halfcourt - coupled with how many times you foul," Neighbors said.
So for McGuff's Huskies, it's not enough to have their scoring defense low. A team can do that by limiting your offensive possessions. UW did that last season while allowing just 58.3 points per game - but scoring just 56.2 per night and finishing 11-17.
Yet that defensive mindset from last season from Barlow, Argens and friends has carried over to give McGuff and his staff a basis for their lockdown system.
"This year, we are a whole lot quicker," Argens said. "Coach is always yelling, `Run! Run!' and it's about getting into the passing gaps. This year we are better in our transition defense. He's making us run, to get back on defense."
They didn't do it well Thursday at Cal, but the Huskies know they have to be zooming to be successful at Stanford.
It's the only way McGuff will have it.
"It's going to be a tough game," Argens said of facing the Cardinal, which has beaten UW 11 consecutive times dating to the Huskies' win on Dec. 22, 2005 in Seattle.
"But this is what we've been practicing for."