Dawgs Getting Defensive About Turning This Around
Dec. 21, 2011
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Forget about the second-highest scoring offense in the Pac-12, the one began this week among the top 20 in the nation. Forget that freshman Tony Wroten has 73 points in the last three games.
After a baffling home performance, the Huskies are getting defensive.
At least they'd better be.
"The number one thing we are looking at is becoming a better defensive team," coach Lorenzo Romar said Tuesday, two days after Washington got scorched by South Dakota State 92-73 at Alaska Airlines Arena to end its school-record home winning streak against non-conference opponents at 32.
The Huskies (5-5, with all the losses in the last seven games) often over-committed to dribble penetration Sunday. Wings defenders collapsed on Jackrabbits that had no intentions of shooting in the lane but instead passed outside to 3-point shooters - ones the Dawgs left more alone than Mrs. Claus on Christmas Eve.
South Dakota State swished its first seven 3-point attempts en route a season high in points allowed by UW.
Washington entered the week last in the Pac-12 and 314th out of 338 Division-I teams in surrendering 76.3 points per game.
The issues before Sunday included not getting back quickly enough in transition defense, which cost UW in a two-point loss to 11th-ranked Marquette in New York two weeks ago, not fighting through or switching properly on screens and not stopping the ball before it gets into the paint.
All that and more is what Romar and his staff hammered hard again in the latest two practices Tuesday for Thursday's final pre-conference warm up game against Cal State Northridge (3-6).
The 7 p.m. tipoff at Alaska Airlines Arena is not on television. But it will be live again here on GoHuskies.com with another game chat with play by play and analysis, plus on the Washington IMG College radio network.
The game is Washington's last chance to get right before the Pac-12 schedule begins Dec. 29 at home against Oregon State (8-2). The Beavers will test the Huskies' defense, too. They entered this week 11th in the country in scoring at 82.6 points per game.
"The way we play defense is a catalyst for everything we do," Romar said. "When we don't defend things don't go well for us."
The Huskies keep a goals board in their locker room. They assign purple and gold basketballs to objectives met and those not met in different statistical categories for each game - turnovers, deflections, shooting percentages for and against, etc. Coaches even have clipboard-toting managers tracking deflections, stops and dives to the floor in each practice.
Those aggressive hallmarks of defense have come to define Romar's Huskies. They are the primary reasons the Dawgs have made six NCAA tournaments, reached three Sweet 16s, won two conference tournament titles and one outright league regular-season title in Romar's first nine years at Washington.
When those principles are absent, Washington gets something resembling the sputtering start it is battling through right now.
"The thing that has been very consistent through the years is the deflections we get. (They) are normally a huge indicator of how we are defending and what type of energy we are playing with," Romar said.
He explained the team's goal is 26 deflections of passes per game. In the early season blowout loss at Saint Louis the Huskies had a season-low 18.
The next lowest? The 19 they had Sunday against South Dakota State.
"The deflections coincide with the losses," Romar said. "Every game we have met our goal we've won. Every game we have not met our goal in that regard we have lost.
"It just triggers everything."
That defense will get a boost Thursday. Seven-foot center Aziz N'Diaye will return from the sprained knee he sustained midway through the 86-60 loss to Duke on Dec. 10.
Romar said N'Diaye, whom the coach calls perhaps UW's most valuable player for all he does defensively in the lane and in rebounding, will not start as he eases back to action after sitting out the last two games. So for the third consecutive game Washington will start four guards -- Abdul Gaddy, Wroten, C.J. Wilcox, and Terrence Ross -- with forward Darnell Gant.
The lack of deflections is particularly baffling for a team that is the longest Romar has had at Washington. The four starting guards are 6-3, 6-5, 6-5, and 6-6, respectively. Gant is 6-8. N'Diaye's wingspan is about as wide as some Boeing jets. And the primary reserves are 6-7 Desmond Simmons, 6-8 Martin Breunig and 6-9 Shawn Kemp Jr.
They all must do better containing opponents from dribbling past them, Romar says.
"If we can't keep the basketball in front of us, our entire defense breaks down," the coach said. "If they do get by us at times, we have to do a better job in our rotations. We have to rotate quicker and smarter, making the right decisions.
"It's very surprising. I thought we'd be a better defensive team than we've shown."
There are a couple of factors delaying progress on the defensive end, the winning end.
This tall team is also Romar's youngest at Washington, with five freshmen, a redshirt freshman in Simmons and two starting sophomores, Ross and Wilcox. Romar said again before this season younger players, particularly freshmen, take about half a season to fully grasp his defensive concepts and then perhaps games after that to begin consistently applying them on the court.
Washington is 10 games into a season that will last at least 31 games, counting the first game of the Pac-12 tournament in March.
Tuesday, Romar reminded that he benched Isaiah Thomas for stretches of his freshman season because he was not getting the message about defense. Thomas, of course, is about to start his career as a point guard for the NBA's Sacramento Kings.
Plus, the coaches had to slow down the teaching and implementation of their defense during preseason practices in October and November because the lessons were sailing over the heads of all those freshmen. That meant Washington began this season behind Romar's other Huskies teams defensively.
Yet as Romar said Tuesday, any and all that sound like excuses amid the surprising defeats.
About the offense: Look for a renewed emphasis to get Ross more scoring chances Thursday - and beyond. The Huskies' leading scorer at 16.4 points per game entering Sunday had just four shots in 23 minutes against South Dakota State while hampered by foul trouble.
"We told our team we can't go through another game with Terrence getting that many shots," Romar said. "He needs more shots."