The Washington Huskies began the season ranked No. 13 in the nation by the AP, but fell out of the standings for good by January 11. Their recent play indicates they may be inching closer to a ranked position.
Winners of seven in a row, including the Pac-10 Championship, Washington will face the Marquette Golden Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in San Jose.
The Huskies (24-9) are led by senior Quincy Pondexter, who averaged 19.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest and was named first team All Pac-10. The 6-foot-6 combo forward has scored 29 points or more in six games this season, including a season-high 34 in a win over Oregon.
Pondexter was joined on that All Pac-10 team by sophomore point guard Isaiah Thomas. Despite his small 5-foot-9 frame, Thomas has averaged 17.1 points and 2.0 assists per game.
Even though Washington was the highest scoring team in the Pac-10 this season, they also feature two defensive stoppers who earned all Pac-10 honors.
Both guard-forward Justin Holiday and guard Venoy Overton were named to the All-Defensive team in the Pac-10. Overton ranked eighth in the Pac-10 at 1.4 steals per game and Holiday's attention to defense has made him one of the league's best.
Despite averaging just under 80 points per contest, Pondexter and Thomas are the only Huskies averaging double-digit points. Junior Matthew Bryan-Amaning averages an efficient 8.7 points per game in just 22 minutes, and freshman blue-chip prospect Abdul Gaddy adds 4.1 points of his own.
Elston Turner and Scott Suggs both average five points per game.
As far as the tournament goes, the No. 11 seed Huskies fit the bill of a team ready to spring an upset. In the last 25 years, 11 seeds that score more than 73 points per game, average 8 percent more points than their opponent, and have a winning percentage over .640 are 24-22, while seeds that do not fit that criteria are 7-47. Washington covers all three areas, statistically upping their chances of winning.
Washington will want to move the ball up and down the court and keep the tempo up with pressure defense. According to Ken Pomeroy's statistics (kenpom.com), Washington ranks in the top 13 at both raw and adjusted pace.
With small guards and big men who can shoot from the outside, the Huskies thrive off transition offense and will apply pressure on defense at times. Marquette likes to run as well, but lately their best offense has been in half-court sets with drives and paint touches. Whoever wins the pace battle early will have the edge.
Washington's season has come in four quarters, with each featured its own highs and lows. The first quarter included their quick 9-2 start, with losses coming at Texas Tech and at home to then-No. 13 Georgetown. In quarter number two, the Huskies began conference play with a 3-5 record, including an ugly home loss to Oregon.
A timely out-of-conference game against Seattle, won by the Huskies 123-76, seemed to right the ship as they won their next four games. However, the run was short-lived as they went on to lose two of their next three games, putting their tournament hopes in serious jeopardy.
With their season on the line, Washington re-gained their early-season swagger by winning their last seven games and collecting an automatic bid after taking down California in the Pac-10 final.
Washington is similar to Marquette in that they were playing for their tournament lives the last three weeks of the season, as every game could have been the difference between the NCAA's and the NIT.
The only difference was that Marquette was playing and defeating bubble teams they were able to add to their resume, while Washington was playing teams from one of the worst Pac-10's in the league's history. Wins were expected and losses were twice as bad.
There's no question the talent is there for the Huskies, but putting it all together has been an issue at times. Pondexter comes to play in big games but whether or not his supporting cast will do the same is cause for concern.
There are three things Marquette will need to do to improve their chances of avoiding an upset Thursday evening. With such a small and shallow bench, foul trouble will be the most important factor for the Golden Eagles.
It makes sense to say keeping your best player out of foul trouble, but when it comes to Marquette the importance level increases tenfold. Lazar Hayward will most likely be guarding Quincy Pondexter and must stay out of foul trouble on the defensive end.
Marquette is just 1-3 when Hayward fouls out of games and against a high-scoring offense, having him in will be vital.
Darius Johnson-Odom will need to have a ‘Villanova' day and not a ‘St. John's' or ‘Georgetown' day Thursday, relative to the Big East Tournament. The sophomore JUCO guard scored a career-high 24 points in a win over Villanova, but scored a combed 11 points in the other two games.
Having only two true scorers might work against St. John's, but in the NCAA Tournament teams must have three players they know they can look to for points. Maurice Acker's occasional offensive outbursts would be an added bonus, but he should not be expected to be a consistent scorer like Johnson-Odom needs to be.
It's no secret Marquette is a small team and that they have struggled on the boards all year, but they will have no room for error against Washington, who led the Pac-10 with 38.4 rebounds a contest.
If Marquette can stay close on the boards like they did against Villanova (-6 margin) and avoid a game like Georgetown (-22), it will go a long way towards keeping them in the game.
Washington has not been tested much this season, playing only four games against Tournament teams compared to 13 for Marquette. Neither team will know that much about their opponent, but with such a unique team that Marquette has, it will work in their favor. Expect this one to come down to the final minute, with Johnson-Odom or Jimmy Butler hitting a big shot down the stretch to give Marquette the close win.
Prediction: Marquette 70, Washington 68
Preview: Washington Huskies
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