Beach's Bits

There's no disputing the fact that, as individual weekends go, the final weekend of 2010 was an epic one for the University of Washington. While football fans celebrated the return to relevance of their beloved program and hero Jake Locker, the basketball team was busy cementing their status at the top of the Pac-10 conference.

Pac-10 analysts overwhelmingly chose the Huskies as their pre-season favorite to win the conference, garnering 33 or 35 possible votes. Their confidence in the Huskies proved to be well-founded during opening weekend of Pac-10 play.

There's an awful lot to like about this particular team. The Husky players and coaches clearly learned their lesson from three disappointing non-conference losses.

The biggest improvement has come on the glass. The first month of the season, Washington's rebounding concerns were real, and it was becoming painfully obvious that all was not well in the paint. The Huskies are a program built on rebounding and defense, and when one of those two areas isn't in sync, it has ramifications on the rest of the floor. The Huskies use rebounding and defense to initiate their transition offense – a huge part of their game strategy.

UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar has done a masterful job of identifying and addressing the Dawgs' strengths and weaknesses. To deal with their deficiencies on the glass, Romar sent a message to talented forward Mathew Bryan-Amaning, benching him for two weeks and replacing him in the starting lineup with 7-foot workhorse Aziz N'Daiye.

Despite the obvious offensive implications of swapping a 15 point per game scorer with the inexperienced sophomore from Senegal, the strategy worked. Romar's multi-layered message was received and understood. Rather than sulking on the sidelines, Bryan-Amaning re-dedicated his efforts in the paint, and four games later was inserted back into the starting lineup. Since than, he's been a model of efficiency, averaging 16 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. His efforts during Pac-10 opening weekend were rewarded Monday, as he was named Pac-10 Player of the Week for the first time in his career.

While the starting pairing of N'Daiye and Bryan-Amaning has solidified the Huskies interior play, it's also magnified one of the Huskies biggest challenges – post depth. The consequences of losing Tyreese Breshers to retirement have become clear. With forward Darnell Gant serving as the Huskies' lone post reserve, Romar's options are limited. Against UCLA, N'Daiye fouled out with five minutes left in the second half, and both Bryan-Amaning and Gant were forced to play with four fouls the rest of the way. As we saw last weekend, keeping his bigs on the floor is going to be a season long balancing act for Romar.

Speaking of defense, N'Daiye has been magnificent thus far, visibly improving from game to game. Obviously he lacks refinement, but his impact on the game is profound. Even big Josh Smith, UCLA's 340-pound blue-chipper had trouble getting his shot off against the Huskies' center. It was rather ironic watching the UCLA game on Friday as the two former UW recruits battled. Had Smith pledged for the Huskies, Washington would have never landed N'Daiye, and there's little question which player ended up being the better fit. In N'Diaye, the Huskies got exactly what they needed.

N'Diaye is a huge catalyst for the Huskies' defense, but it's been the overall team effort that has carried the Huskies to this point. They unquestionably understand the role vigorous defense plays in manufacturing opportunities on offense.

But in a stroke of painfully bad luck, the Huskies lost a key contributor to that team effort this week, as Abdul Gaddy was lost for the season due to a knee injury sustained during Tuesday's practice. It might be easy to overlook Gaddy's contributions. On a team full of spotlights, he isn't flashy. But other than the sensational play of Justin Holiday, Gaddy has been as consistently solid as any player on the team. He has been a big part of what makes the Huskies tick.

Gaddy has a calming influence unlike any other player on the team. His steady poise allows the rest of team to create the organized chaos where they thrive.

Aboard the Huskies' Led Zeppelin, it's easy to see to see Isaiah Thomas as Robert Plant - the talented, brash face of the team. And Matthew Bryan-Amaning has been UW's backbone, providing a solid foundation a la John Bonham. But Gaddy has been their John Paul Jones - ever present, always there, but never obtrusive. At the end of the day, you don't know what he did or how he did it, but he still always had an impact on the game.

Few teams in the country are capable of taking a body blow to their starting lineup and not see a significant dip in play. Losing a starting point typically is the kiss of death.

Fortunately the Huskie, are one of the few teams equipped to recover. And how well they recover will determine whether or not UW has what it still takes to make a deep run in the post-season.

Venoy Overton is obviously the clear favorite to move into the starting rotation, and why not? He's a senior, he's intimidating, and a nightmare to keep up with. Before Gaddy went down, the Huskies easily had the finest defensive starting unit in the conference after Aziz N'Daiye entered the lineup. Now visualize it with Overton instead of Gaddy. Defensively, that's the nastiest starting lineup that has ever tipped off at Hec Ed. Period.

But that's also an awful lot of octane to start a game with.

Which begs the question – from a team perspective, is there an option that better suits the team's interests?

Washington has three wings - C.J. Wilcox, Terrence Ross, and Scott Suggs - and it seems like they would all bring some positive assets to the starting lineup. They're serious three-point threats and have all demonstrated the ability to get white hot from behind the arc. Doing that would go a long way to opening up the middle and stretching opposing defenses farther than they already are. They can add more length to an already tall lineup; think West Virginia last season, but with a legitimate center in the middle. All three players have the potential to make a significant impact for the Huskies.

Individually, CJ Wilcox has a starter's poise, though he hasn't managed to click consistently from outside. A consistent role might be the thing to help him dial it in permanently if he is able to physically. Right now the freshman from Utah is still recovering from an infection to his hip, so who knows how many minutes he can play at this point.

Terrence Ross is one of the team's most dangerous offensive threats. One thing he showed during UW's road swing is that little affects the true frosh from Portland. In many ways, he's been instant offense coming off the bench, just add water. He's also an outstanding rebounder, and brings some Brandon Roy-style natural ability that is tough to quantify. But than again, Roy came off the bench during arguably his biggest season. Ross' rebounding skill almost necessitates him staying with the second unit due to the Huskies short front-court rotation.

Suggs brings system-veteran intangibles. He understands and has vastly improved his attention to the defensive end versus last season. He's hit several big shots in key situations as well. But with all of the big scorers in the starting lineup the Huskies again may be better served by his continued role presence as a primary scoring threat off the bench.

They're all pretty good options truth be told.

Regardless of who Romar puts in the starting lineup, the key ingredient in the Huskies' recent surge has been the rapidly maturing play of point guard Isaiah Thomas, and starting Thursday against Oregon, the team is going to lean on him more than ever. The formerly one-dimensional star has evolved into a superbly adaptable floor leader, capable of adjusting his role every possession. His game flowing with confidence, Thomas has become a leader both vocally and by example – at both ends of the floor. How he responds to losing his backcourt mate Gaddy will likely determine how far this team advances in the NCAA Tournament. Though constantly targeted by opposing fans, Thomas has proven his detractors wrong time and time again with his unyielding, relentless effort - all done while shedding his reputation as a volume shooter.

Make no mistake; losing Gaddy is a big blow, but it isn't insurmountable. Coach Romar has a big task on his hands navigating health issues: Wilcox's infection may keep him out Thursday; N'Daiye's knee isn't 100 percent; Overton is banged up too with various issues, but seems to be playing his way out of them. It's part of the game.

As tough a pill to swallow as Gaddy's injury is, there's still an awful lot be excited about for Husky fans, despite the fact that his loss means more questions have to be asked.

Washington is really good, possibly a great team. Are they a Final Four team? Their national ranking doesn't suggest it. But the Huskies are a top-10 team stuck in a 23rd-ranked shell. Can they keep moving up despite the loss of their calming presence in the backcourt?


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