Huskies Focused on NIT -- Thanks to So. Dakota St.
March 15, 2012
NIT Central | NIT Bracket
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Any concerns this National Invitation Tournament didn't have the Huskies' full attention ended a couple days ago when their coaches began the scouting report on Northwestern.
"This team will be similar to South Dakota State."
They might as well have shouted: "Red alert!"
The mere mention of South Dakota State still stuns Washington. Three months ago - days after UW lost at the buzzer to Marquette and rallied back to nearly beat Duke in two uplifting games in New York's Madison Square -- the unheralded Jackrabbits came into Alaska Airlines Arena with shooters galore and torched the Huskies 92-73.
Now top-seeded UW (22-10) hosts fourth-seeded Northwestern (19-13) and its array of outside gunners in the second round of the NIT on Friday at 7 p.m. (ESPNU television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with the exclusive game chat from courtside).
"That South Dakota State game is really going to be in the back of our minds," said senior captain Darnell Gant, who admits he isn't having fun in this NIT - not yet.
The lesson Gant and his guys took from the stunning loss to South Dakota State, an NCAA tournament team: "Don't come out flat. And we've got to come out on their shooters - early."
Northwestern has beaten Michigan State, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats lost by two to NCAA No.-2 seed Ohio State. They lost twice in overtime to Big Ten co-champion Michigan.
They led the Big Ten with nine made 3-pointers per game.
"The challenge is a little bit like South Dakota State, where they have four guys between 6-1 and 6-5 on the floor who can all shoot," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said before practice Thursday morning. "They shoot close to 40 percent as a team from 3(-point range).
"Those guys run around and shoot those 3's in that motion."
The fifth Wildcat is the most dangerous one. He's the star that should keep Washington focused on this chance to advance to another home game next week in the NIT quarterfinals, with a chance then to get back to New York for the semifinals.
"Then it can get really fun," Romar said.
John Shurna averaged 20 points per game in Big Ten play, tops in the league. Northwestern's all-time scoring leader is 6-feet-9 but shoots from all over. The senior's 2.8 3-pointers made per game were also the most in the Big Ten.
Romar is familiar with Shurna. He coached him with USA Basketball the last few summers.
"He can post up. He can put it on the floor. He is a really good offensive player," Romar said. "With that size there just aren't that many guys that match up well with him at that position.
"He's 6-9 and shoots it as well as any one of (the Wildcats)."
The Husky most likely to get much of the one-on-one defensive time against Shurna is the 6-8 Gant.
He has yet to fully embrace this NIT, just days after Washington became the first major conference regular-season champion to miss the NCAAs. Still, Gant doesn't want his career to end just yet.
"If we get this win, I will probably be having fun," said Gant, who made three consecutive NCAA tournaments before this month. "It's just weird. The NCAA tournament is going on and I'm watching from another tournament. I'm just trying to get into it.
"(But) I get to play more games. I don't have to go home yet."
To keep Gant playing, Washington will need to play one of its better defensive games of late. Northwestern is more than just Shurna. For instance, junior forward Drew Crawford was third-team All-Big-Ten after averaging 16.5 points per game. He had 27 points, while Shurna had 23 points and 11 rebounds, Tuesday in the Wildcats' 76-74 victory over Akron.
"They present matchup problems for you," Romar said. "Our main concern is how they have pretty much five shooters all on the floor at one time."
The Wildcats are coached by Bill Carmody, who has brought to Northwestern the famed Princeton half-court offense he learned under legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril. It features constant outside motion, systematic screens and backdoor cuts and shots from everywhere.
Washington has faced variations of the Princeton offense, most notably in the forms Pac-12 rival Oregon State uses. But it hasn't defended this much of it in one game as it will against the Wildcats.
"They will run it in its purest form more than anyone we've played," Romar said.
That Huskies will have to be, as Romar put it, "creative" to get 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye involved. The flip side is, if N'Diaye can get involved and can stay out of foul trouble UW's center could have a big advantage over the smaller Wildcats Friday.
It would help if the Huskies were far better keeping dribblers out of the lane than they've been so far this month. That would keep N'Diaye from having to come over to help on defense.
Though defense will be the key as it always is with this young Huskies team, the offense should remain intact. That is despite the hip-flexor injury sophomore Terrence Ross sustained Tuesday in UW's 82-72, first-round win over Texas-Arlington.
Ross, Washington's second-leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, moved freely while shooting with teammates before practice Thursday.
"We're anticipating him playing," Romar said.
The Huskies are also anticipating a more focused, consistent night Friday than they had Tuesday, when they were still getting through the fact they are in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.
"The shock of being in this," Romar said, "is over."