Beach's Bits - Michigan State

LAHAINA, Maui - Washington heads home from Maui earning mostly positive early reviews despite a couple of tough losses at the hands of Kentucky and Michigan State. They missed out on a golden opportunity to capture a signature victory for the 2010-2011 season resume, but UW can leave the islands with their heads held high, though it'll be a long flight home as they reflect on what could have been.

The Huskies pride themselves on defense, sharing the ball and pushing the tempo, and in that regard, they passed with flying colors. Both John Calipari and Tom Izzo raved about the Huskies' defensive prowess. They're deadly dangerous and as scrappy as they come. The Huskies forced 52 turnovers over the course of the three day tournament – an average of 17 game. They also averaged nearly 15 assists a game – another impressive feat - and run the floor like a track meet at every available opportunity.

Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari called Washington, "the best transition team in the country". That's not lip service because if anyone knows up-tempo, it's John Calipari. Michigan State's Izzo called Washington one of the top two or three teams they'll play this year. When they're controlling the pace, few teams in the country can keep up with them. That was fairly obvious though out the course of the tourney. But for the moment, they're a team that only knows how to play at one speed.

Yet they still lost twice.

Early on against Michigan State, it wasn't looking good for the Huskies, who were floundering in a quagmire of half-court malaise. That's what the Spartans do, and they're very effective at it. With the Dawgs down seven at the 11:16 mark early in the first half, UW Head Coach Lorenzo called a time out, obviously concerned about the Huskies play up to that point. Imploring his players to pick up the pace and up the pressure, the Huskies caught fire, closing the gap and sprinting ahead to a ten point half-time lead.

The story repeated itself in the second half as Washington misfired out of the gate, but this time Spartans endured the Huskies' pressure, while expanding their rebounding advantage in the post.

The Huskies are loaded with talented players, but what they are clearly missing is a go-to player who they can dump the ball to when the transition game isn't working. Last season, that job belonged to Quincy Pondexter, and he did it as well as anyone in the country. While this squad is superior to last season's in most ways, they're clearly missing Pondexter's offensive leadership.

Matthew Bryan-Amaning possesses many of the requisite skills necessary to be a true go-to threat - as he demonstrated during the second half of Pac-10 play last year - but he didn't do it here. Isaiah Thomas is a dynamic scorer, but he's too small to get his shot off when defenses are keying on him. An answer might lay in the maturation of Terrence Ross, who didn't see much action but possesses many of the skills necessary to be that kind of player. C.J. Wilcox could be another option, if he is given time to show that he can be a complete scorer, and not just a three-point specialist.

The solution for now seems obvious enough: Push the tempo at every opportunity, and when it isn't working – push harder. The Huskies' three point-guard rotation allows them to constantly rotate fresh legs at the most important position on the floor. As Abdul Gaddy matures - and he's grown by leaps and bounds during the opening weeks of the season - they'll only get more dangerous on the break.

Washington's explosive offense is totally predicated on their defensive effort, and for the most part, the Huskies were very effective in that regard. Washington won't meet many teams who can match up with them athletically the way Kentucky did. Even Michigan State, the second-ranked team in the country, couldn't keep up with the Huskies at times, despite a veteran roster full of blue chip talent.

The Huskies continue to be plagued by poor rebounding. When they're being dominated on the boards, as they were against Kentucky - and to a lesser extent, Michigan State - their transition opportunities are limited. Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Darnell Gant needed to do a better job in this regard during the tournament. The 6-foot-9 center averaged a meager four boards a game, and Gant did even worse - averaging just two per contest.

How two of the tallest, most athletic players on the floor can be both be shut out for an entire half of play, as they were against Michigan State, defies logic. It happened anyway. They combined for a whopping six rebounds in 54 total minutes.

They do pose well for the camera though, but for Washington to take the next step, they're going to need a whole lot more than that from their bigs.

Aziz N'Daiye, on the other hand, proved his worth repeatedly, though foul trouble limited his overall production. Offensively, his contributions were mainly limited to put-backs and occasional flashes through the lane, but he knows his role and performed it well for the most part. The more comfortable he gets, the more he'll produce.

Washington's starting rotation hasn't clicked yet. If the Kentucky and Michigan State games can now be used as a barometer for play, they tend to either force things and take on an air of impatience if their transition game is sputtering, or they become too patient and stagnate offensively in the half court, where they lack scoring punch. They need to find a balance, that middle ground where they can force tempo and create turnovers, but also get quality looks up when they have to go deep in the shot clock.

Darnell Gant's improved outside shooting is useful, but the Huskies need muscle and hustle. They're a solid, if unspectacular group, but their ceiling may be a bit limited based on what we observed this week. You can bet that Lorenzo Romar will continue to experiment with the lineup as he searches for increased productivity. As schedule sanity returns, you can expect to see plenty more of C.J. Wilcox, Terrence Ross, Scott Suggs and N'Diaye.

So what did we learn about the Huskies over the course of their first meaningful games of the season? A lot actually, despite the losses. They're obviously a very good team, capable of playing with any team in the country. They're athletic, excellent defensively, and more disciplined than in recent years, but they also make some really poor, emotional decisions and haven't found that focus that will allow them to play with an even keel for 40 minutes.

Their veterans are good, but not good enough to be a championship caliber team, and the youngsters figure to play a bigger role the longer the season progresses. And there's no sugarcoating the rebounding concerns. The forwards at least, look nothing like what Husky fans are accustomed to, and they paid a hefty price for that deficiency.

But as disappointing as their record may seem, we're still in November and team you see today will look much different a couple of months from now, especially as the more confident Gaddy and the rest of the Huskies' talented youngsters fully integrate themselves into the rotation and find their respective niches. We knew coming into this season that Washington's early success would be primarily predicated on the play of the veterans, while the finished product will be all about the development of the younger players. That still holds true.

The 2010-2011 season has lost some luster with the losses, there's no denying it. But there's also no shame in losing to two of college basketball truly elite programs. They had a shot at making a big statement, and ended up falling short, if only just.

Part one of the pre-season is at an end. As the second act begins, we'll see how much they learned as they need to take care of teams like Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Nevada to prove that the teachable moments made in Maui were put to good use. Top Stories