Husky Hoops - How good is this team?

After nine games, Washington Basketball stands at a respectable 6-3. In many years that would be cause for celebration, but in the 2010-11 season it has some questioning whether the Huskies are underachieving. Are they? And if they are, can they get back on track?

It's certainly a nice problem to have. For those that don't remember, it wasn't very long ago that Washington traveled to Seattle Pacific and defeated the Falcons in Royal Brougham Pavilion in OVERTIME by two points.

It was a game that the Huskies probably should've lost, too.

The team that night boasted a starting guard tandem of Bryan Brown and Michael Johnson, starting forwards Will Perkins and Greg Clarke, and the starting center was David Dixon. CJ Massingale and Curtis Allen joined Grant Leep and Ben Coffee as Bob Bender's bench players.

Thalo Green and Marlon Shelton were also on that team, one that went on to win 10 games and drew less than 6,000 fans per contest.

No one really cared, so although the team was abysmal, there weren't a lot of complaints. Displeasure was mostly shown by lack of interest and empty seats.

Fast forward 10 years, which puts you at today. Washington has talent, coaching, and a rabid fan base. There have been trips to the Sweet 16, a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, and a Pac-10 tournament championship in the past couple of seasons.

It is an exciting time for Husky Basketball, which is why you are hearing people voice their concerns about a team that has won six of their first nine games this season. The expectations are now a bit higher than when the UW would beat Brewster Packing by four points.

How good is this team?

Their three losses were not egregious by any means, and each held lessons that could pay off down the road.

The 7-point loss to Kentucky was disappointing in that the Huskies had by far the more experienced team on the floor, yet could not handle the Wildcats' incredible freshman duo of Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight. The ‘Cats out-rebounded the Dawgs by 10, which was alarming.

The 5-point loss to Michigan State would've been easier to swallow had UW not blown a 10-point lead in the first half. Washington rebounded much better in this contest but cold shooting from beyond the arc in the second half and some spotty free throw shooting hurt down the stretch.

The loss last weekend at Texas A&M was all about rebounding. It was a contest that Washington could've won had they brought their "A-game". Nonetheless, after playing a less-than-inspired game, the Huskies still had a chance to win it at the end. A wide-open three-pointer by C.J. Wilcox clanged off the rim and a last-second drive attempt by Isaiah Thomas was stuffed before it left his hand.

In all three losses, rebounding (or lack thereof) at crucial points cost the Huskies dearly. Quincy Pondexter is missed for that dimension of his game above all. Q-Pon certainly was a the go-to guy on offense last year, but where the Huskies miss him most was his ability to defend either in space or in the post, and to grab errant shots cleanly and start the break. Washington has not replaced that element to date.

However, the team they have put together is lethal in many other areas.

The guards are talented, deep, and very versatile. No less than five Huskies are averaging in double-figures scoring, so offense should never be a problem with this crew. Isaiah Thomas leads all scorers with 15.3 per contest, while also averaging over three assists and three rebounds per game. Abdul Gaddy has made huge strides over last year in terms of both shooting and handling the basketball. Gaddy has averaged 10 points and 3.9 assists per contest. He is connecting at nearly 60 percent from the field and just shy of 90 percent from the free throw line. From the bench, senior Venoy Overton adds 5.6 points per game, along with a team-best 4.2 assists and his trademark pesky on-ball defense. Those three are all getting over 20 minutes per game and are running the Husky offensive show.

Gaddy has been the pleasant surprise, whereas Thomas has yet to really hit his stride. Once he begins to find his range, he will improve on his 34 percent three-point shooting. From the field, IT is making 45 percent of his shots, and that should improve as well. However it is his 67 percent free throw mark that must improve. Thomas will go to the foul line more than any other Husky this year and when he does, he needs to make it count. Perhaps going perfect from the stripe against Texas A&M in eight attempts signals a move toward better free throw shooting.

The swing guards are C.J. Wilcox, Terrance Ross, and Scott Suggs, and all three bring different tools to the table.

Wilcox is not only the most dangerous shooter on the team, but perhaps the most underrated defender for Lorenzo Romar. Wilcox averages 10 points per game off the bench, and has hit on nearly 60 percent of his three-point efforts. He is the zone-buster that the Huskies have not had since Tre Simmons. While Ryan Appleby was a good shooter, he wasn't able to get his shot off as quickly, or able to find creases in the floor where open space exists between defenders. Once Wilcox gets his feet set and gets an open look at the rim, more times than not the ball is going to go through the hoop.

Suggs has not been completely healthy, so he has looked tentative at times this season. When his knee was fine in early practices this season, he looked like a different player. No longer just a spot-up three-point shooter, Suggs will hurt defenses now by slashing and penetrating the paint. His defense is solid, so once he is back to 100 percent, Romar has yet another well-rounded weapon to put on the floor.

Ross, despite being a true freshman, is already the most athletic player on the team. He has an upside that is unbelievable. His shooting has not been on par just yet, but he is a dead-eye with range beyond the three-point stripe. He is still finding his way and has been overwhelmed a bit on the boards so far, but he is a player that will only get better as his minutes increase and when he gains some added strength.

Justin Holiday, with the exception of the Texas A&M loss, has been the Huskies' best player this season. He leads the team in rebounding, is third in scoring at 13.1 per game, and his shot has improved by leaps and bounds over last year. He is knocking down shots at a 60 percent clip, is over 50 percent from three-point range, and his percentage from the free-throw line is second best on the team (85 percent).

If this team struggles this season, it will be on the inside. Matthew Bryan-Amaning is second on the team with a 14.1 points-per-game average, but he has not been consistent. He should be grabbing more than just 5.8 boards per game, and he still turns the ball over too often. However, he is Washington's best offensive threat inside. He has nice moves but has trouble catching the ball at times, which leads to turnovers. If he can be a bit more consistent with his post game and grab a few more rebounds, it could spell the difference when the Huskies face bigger teams, like Texas A&M. He also needs to improve his foul shooting.

Darnell Gant will never be a solid rebounder, he just doesn't have the body type or natural instinct for it, but he is still flourishing in his role this season. Gant is finding the range on his outside jumper and blocking shots down low. His 8-for-13 marksmanship from beyond the arc is making life difficult for opponents who sit back and chose not to guard him. He is doing well defending and shooting, but if you are looking for rebounds, it is going to have to come from the newcomer - Aziz N'Daiye.

N'Daiye is still very raw and is playing about 15 minutes per game because of his non-repaired knee that is starting to show signs of tendonitis. Still, in that limited time, he is averaging nearly two-and-a-half rebounds every three minutes. The Huskies won't expect a lot of scoring out of him other than dunks and put backs right now, but his rebounding and defense will be crucial. His effort is incredible, and he will develop low-post skills in the years to follow.

The Washington Huskies have a team that goes 10-deep, and all 10 guys bring different things to the game when they are on the floor. That gives Romar some flexibility in how he wants to run the game. He has shooters in Wilcox, Ross, and Suggs that will help in the half-court offense. He has playmakers in Gaddy and Thomas that can create not only for themselves, but also their teammates. He has Gant to knock down perimeter shots to open up the middle for Bryan-Amaning. And if he wants to really turn up the heat on defense and get aggressive with rebounding, he has N'Daiye to contest anything close to the rim. He also has Overton to force opposing offenses to play faster than they want to. And finally, he's got one of the most versatile players in the Pac-10 in Holiday.

It is a solid roster with many more strengths (shooting, fast break, and defense) than weaknesses (rebounding, toughness). For that reason, I think the determining factor in how far this team will go in the post season will be the development of N'Daiye, since he is the clear answer to the rebounding woes they suffered in their losses. If he can increase his minutes to 18 or 20 per game and set the pace by playing with a chip on his shoulder - things he's very capable of doing - Washington's rebounding would improve.

The other guy that needs to play more is Ross. His defense will come along as the season goes, and he has the frame and vertical leap to be a decent rebounder. His offense is going to be scary in time.

But the best part of Husky Basketball right now? It really is fun to see how far they've come since that near-loss to Seattle Pacific a decade ago.


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