The Showdown Has Arrived

After flattening an overwhelmed Virginia Cavaliers squad 106-63, the Washington Men's basketball team hustled back to their hotel to prepare for one of the 2010's most highly anticipated match-ups - a showdown against 8th-ranked Kentucky in the second round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, arguably the premier pre-season college hoops tournament in the country.

For those who have never visited the Lahaina Civic Center - the tiny gymnasium in Maui that hosts the Maui Invitational - you'll be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining place to watch a college basketball game. With 2400 sweaty hoops fans packed into a poorly air conditioned arena no larger than Seattle's Garfield High School gym, the LCC is truly one of a kind.

Unfortunately for the Huskies tomorrow, the Lahaina Civic Center will be filled to the rafters with rabid Kentucky fans. Few fan bases in the country travel the way Big Blue do, and judging by their opening performance against Oklahoma, they're going to make their presence felt. Not that Husky fans weren't plenty vocal during Washington's blowout win. In true Dawg Pack form, the Huskies cheering section was a raucous, energetic bunch, led by KJR personality Dave "Softy" Mahler. Purple and gold clad cheerleaders dominated the stands.

Fan support aside, the Huskies don't need any added motivation for this game. Not with so much riding on it. As non-NCAA Tournament games go, they don't get much bigger than this one. A win Tuesday would give the Huskies a true signature victory in a tough non-conference slate, as well as a big win come tournament time when the selection committees scrutinize resumes to determine who makes it to the Big Dance, and who stays home. Also, as the Pac-10 struggles to recapture its reputation nationally, this would be a big win for the entire conference.

And this is a winnable game for Washington. Not that beating Kentucky is going to be easy, but Washington does have some notable advantages.

In the post, the Huskies would appear to have an edge in terms of size and talent. Kentucky starts 6-foot-9 former Portland star Terrence Jones, an extraordinarily versatile swing forward who plays an wide array of roles for the Wildcats and has been touted as a potential top-5 NBA draft pick. Offensively, he tends to be more of a face-up, perimeter-oriented player who does the bulk of his damage setting up to the left beyond the three-point arc. Possessing a fabulous first step for a player of his length, he moves like a guard and handles the ball like a point guard. He'll also pop the occasional three-pointer when left alone and is an outstanding passer to boot.

The Huskies will likely counter Jones with a defender-by-committee mentality, running Justin Holiday, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Darnell Gant at him, with UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar will go with whomever is playing most effectively. Gant hasn't done anything during the Huskies' first three games to suggest he's ready to be a factor, much less defend a player like Jones, but they don't have many obvious options. The alternatives may not be much better. Holiday is one of the country's top defenders, and he shouldn't have any problem staying in front of Jones, but he's at a pretty sizable weight disadvantage. Bryan-Amaning certainly matches up in the size/strength department, but keeping Jones in front of him poses a daunting challenge for a player who typically defends centers.

After Jones, the Wildcats don't have much down low. Kentucky starts senior Josh Harrelson – a 6-foot-10, 275-pound space-eater who doesn't do much other than foul, though he's averaging seven rebounds a game. The only other member of Big Blue's post rotation is 6-foot-11, 250-pound junior Eloy Vargas – a seldom used Dominican Republic native averaging 14 minutes in the Wildcats' first three games.

To put it frankly, Kentucky literally has no back to the basket post presence. In several instances against Oklahoma, the Wildcats had to settle for contested three-point shots as the shot clock dwindled, simply because they had nowhere else to go. But for the Huskies to exploit their advantage in the post, they'll have to do a better job rebounding the ball. In the Virginia game, the Husky bigs managed just 11 rebounds in the contest (although a lot of that had to do with the fact that UW shot the ball extremely well), and Bryan-Amaning and back-up center Aziz N'Daiye were shut out from that category during the first half. The Huskies' leading rebounders were guards.

N'Daiye will be key for the Huskies. Kentucky penetrates the lane constantly, and a defensively assertive N'Daiye is exactly what Washington needs to limit the effectiveness of John Calipari's vaunted dribble-drive offense. Jones is a fabulous offensive rebounder, attacking the glass at full speed and squeezing between defenders for put backs. He single-handedly dismantled Oklahoma in an otherwise close game with his relentless rebounding effort. Both N'Daiye and Bryan-Amaning must do a better job of blocking out at both ends of the floor.

Where Kentucky really shines is on the perimeter, where they feature several top-notch athletes. The Wildcats spread the ball around the floor, searching for penetration opportunities and open three-point looks. They shoot the ball proficiently for such a young team, raining in triples at a nearly 50 percent clip as a team their first three games. Freshman Brandon Knight is the thoroughbred – a consensus future NBA lottery pick - and the Wildcats' floor general. He had an off-game against Oklahoma, scoring 13 points and tallying just three assists, but he's blazing quick, averaging 19 points a game in his first three contests and a dangerous threat from outside.

Like Washington, Kentucky has a triple threat of quality wings in freshman Doron Lamb and juniors DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller. All three players stand 6-foot-6 or taller and play a variety of roles, from rebounding to post defense, as well as the ability to hit the open three.

That's pretty much the extent of UK's depth. Four of the starters play 30 minutes a game or more, and the team appears to have the lungs to keep up with Washington, despite just a seven-man rotation.

Surprisingly, the Wildcats take pretty good care of the basketball, in spite of their youth. With Jones setting up at the elbow, the guards cut to the basket, trying to take advantage of defensive gaps. All of the guards are excellent finishers at the hoop. Similar to Lorenzo Romar's system, positions don't mean much in Calipari's offense, putting constant pressure on defenders as they rotate and are pulled away from the basket.

Washington features a well seasoned backcourt, and the challenge to Kentucky's young perimeter defenders will be to stay in front of the smaller, quicker Husky guards. Likewise, a hot shooting Kentucky poses a significant long-range threat, so expect intense, in-your-face defense from the UW defenders as they try to overcome their lack of size by amping up the pressure.

As good as the Wildcats are from outside, Washington is better. Though nobody in their right mind is expecting another 17-26 three-point shooting performance like the one they had against Virginia Monday night, there's no reason to think that the Huskies are suddenly going to lose their touch from outside. Washington is shooting it from outside at a 45 percent clip, averaging nearly 14 three-pointers made per game.

But the Huskies biggest advantage is the way they share the ball. So far this season, Washington is averaging a ridiculous 25 assists per game. Meanwhile, they're limiting their turnovers to just over 10 a game. As chaotic as Husky basketball may look at times, they are also extremely efficient in their play. If the Huskies approach Kentucky as unselfishly as they have during the early part of this season, they'll win the game.

Husky fans, the game that has been a year in the making has finally arrived. Top Stories