Beach's Bits - Who are these guys?

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Just two weeks ago, Husky fans were toasting their team's good fortune after knocking off 25th-ranked Arizona to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-10. Little did anyone know that just three games later, the Huskies would have surrendered first place after three consecutive clunkers.

Now, with just a month remaining in the season, the Huskies find themselves perched precariously on the brink of Pac-10 mediocrity, tied for second with UCLA and facing a motivated Oregon Ducks squad fresh off a dominating 26-point win over WSU.

Worse, their potent, adrenalin-laced defense, which has already carried them through rough waters, has suddenly disappeared, which begs the question; who are these guys, and what can they do to bring back the same team that handled USC and UCLA on the road?

So much for being the favorite.

First and foremost, the Huskies must re-establish themselves defensively. For two thirds of the season, Washington has been consistently dominating on the defensive end. On the surface, the team appeared to take great pride in physically overwhelming their opponents. But that tenacity has been replaced with apathy, cloaked with the 'cool jackets' that Lorenzo Romar would love to stick in mothballs for the rest of his coaching career. Even the Huskies' top defenders – veterans like Justin Holiday, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Venoy Overton - appear to have lost their focus.

The first five games of conference play, the Huskies gave up a miserly 65 points per game. But during the last four, opponents are averaging nearly 10 points a game more.

Overton, in particular, hasn't been his normal chaos-inducing self. A step slow at times, the senior from Seattle is routinely getting beaten off the dribble and isn't even ranked among the top 10 steals leaders in Pac-10 play. Curiously, the Huskies' diminishing effort on the defensive front has coincided with the increased use of the 2-3 zone. The addition of the zone has been effective strategy at times, but it's a lazy man's defense, and it doesn't seem to being doing them any favors. Maybe it's just a coincidence. But of all of the areas where Washington is failing at the moment – the easiest way to get back on track is to re-establish their defensive identity, and quickly.

Secondly, cut down on the three-pointers. The Huskies are attempting way too many three-pointers. Nineteen three-point attempts in the first half against Oregon State? They've become the Ernie Kent-era Oregon Ducks. Statistically speaking, they shoot a respectable 40 percent from beyond the arc. Problem is, the over-reliance on three-pointers renders Matthew Bryan-Amaning's offensive game toothless.

Tactically speaking, Bryan-Amaning presents opponents with their biggest defensive challenge, and he's Washington's most dominating physical presence. When he's dialed in, so are the Huskies. In fact, Washington is a perfect 9-0 when MBA attempts 15 field goals or more, which stands in stark contrast to their 6-6 record when he's less active. Clearly Washington can make threes, but they are a lot more effective when MBA is scoring and drawing defenders to him. If defenses are sagging inside, that should allow UW to have even better, more uncontested looks than they are currently getting by just passing the ball around the perimeter and not getting their big men involved.

The Huskies' offense has become predictable and one-dimensional. Isaiah Thomas, who has taken over the main ball-handling duties after Abdul Gaddy suffered a season-ending knee injury, tries to penetrate the lane and either go up for a good look close to the basket, a pass to an open big man for a stuff, or kicks out to the wing for an open three-pointer. It's a good strategy at times, but not every trip down the floor.

Darnell Gant and Justin Holiday chucking three-pointers isn't a long-term recipe for success. It's pulls two of their most effective, opportunistic rebounders away from making plays on the offensive glass. The first half of the season, even when they were struggling, the Huskies were patient on offense and moved the ball around looking for an opportune moment to strike. They've turned into a team that makes one pass and then bombs away from outside. It isn't effective - it isn't even entertaining to watch, unless you have the kind of success UW had from deep against Virginia. But even then, they mixed in the threes within the rhythm of their offense, and even then their big men combined for 16 points. Against Oregon State, MBA and Aziz N'Diaye had 12, but should have had a lot more against a Beavers front-court that simply shouldn't match up against the scoring prowess of a player like Bryan-Amaning.

So this leads to my third point….change it up and take better care of the ball. There was a brief six-game stretch of play following the Texas A&M loss when things seemed to be really clicking for the Huskies. During that span, they barely averaged 10 turnovers a game. But in the six games since, their game management has taken a dramatic shift in reverse. Some of that is due to the lineup shuffle without Gaddy. Not having their primary ball-handler, UW was bound to take a step backward in that department, but it's been worse than expected.

The Huskies no longer have the luxury of starting two point guards, but the majority of their struggles have come as a result of a carelessness and predictability. Thomas has done a very solid job overall as the Huskies primary ball handler, but defenses now know what's coming, and they are plugging the paint with extraordinary vigor. So all those assists by Thomas early on in Gaddy's absence have turned out to be fool's gold because they've been mixed in with way too many turnovers.

Because the Huskies offense has become so predictable, they're facing a zone every time down the floor. Sure, consecutive games against teams like Arizona State, Washington State and Oregon State have something to do with it, but UW handled ASU and OSU in Seattle. They know how to beat those teams. But their recent play has provided the rest of the conference with an easy blueprint for beating them. The Huskies have several players with the skills to effectively direct their offense from the high post, and it's high time to shake things up a bit and give Thomas a break.

Fourth, and possibly the most important one of all - lose the sense of entitlement. Confidence and swagger have served the Huskies well during Lorenzo Romar's nine-year tenure at Washington. They've long since shed the soft reputation that plagues the rest of the Pac-10. However, these Huskies seem to be infected with this crazy idea that just because they were picked to win the Pac-10, that means it's a given. Their confident bluster, whether it be shown during interviews or seen via all the social media that's out there, couldn't be less grounded in reality. The fact is, that despite their obvious talent and potential, they've done nothing to justify their sky-high opinion of themselves. Apparently, their performance in Maui, losses to supposedly inferior Stanford, Oregon and WSU, and otherwise average performances during much of conference play, haven't clued them in. Simply put, they aren't the team they think they are.

Judging by their swagger, you'd think they were a top-5 team, but come Monday - a month before Selection Sunday - they shouldn't even be ranked. So shut your mouths and go out and prove that there's substance to all of the chest-bumping bravado.

Scott Suggs, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox must find some consistency. Suggs single-handedly kept the Huskies in the game against Oregon State. He's Washington's most improved player at both ends of the floor, but they're going to need more from the sweet-shooting junior for them to even think about having some post-season success. Not only does he need to continue his stellar long-range shooting, but they need him to attack the basket. He's become a microcosm for what's been wrong with the UW offense; he sits on the arc, gets stagnant and waits to shoot jumpers. Suggs is capable of being so much more, and he's gaining confidence in what could be a break-out year if he decides on getting aggressive.

Terrence Ross has been the Huskies' most consistently inconsistent contributor. At times, he's been a hero, but more often than not, he's played like a freshman. Washington badly needs more from the gifted Portland native, and not just from beyond the three-point line. They've got enough shooters; they need Ross's impressive instincts around the basket, including more rebounding and continued growth defensively. Like his predecessor Quincy Pondexter, Ross knows what to do around the rim. He's an excellent rebounder, and possesses an impressive array of moves at mid-range but he's so focused on the three-pointer he's rarely close enough to the basket to make use of his versatile skills. Note to Terrence; mix in a pump-fake and a drive once in a while - they can be your friends.

Wilcox brings many of the same traits as Suggs, but in a less effective package. When he's dialed in from long range, he's as deadly as any player on the floor, but that hasn't happened in some time. Before the season, I suggested that the key to Washington's success would be dependent on at least two of the group of Gaddy, Suggs, Ross and Wilcox having breakout seasons. Gaddy is obviously out of the equation, and Suggs seems to be pretty dialed in. However, Suggs' shift to the starting lineup has made the maturation of Ross and Wilcox even more critical off the bench. The verdict is still very much in doubt, and their window of development for this season is growing shorter by the day.

Washington's first season as a Pac-10 favorite hasn't gone nearly as well as they'd hoped. All of the national buzz surrounding them has now evaporated, and they're back in a much more familiar position - having to earn every ounce of respect. That probably suits them better anyway, so maybe this is a good thing for their post-season chances.

Let's hope this is a wake up call they answer before it's too late.


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