Beach's Bits – High Noon

It's High Noon for the Washington Huskies, and especially their Three Amigos – CJ Wilcox, Scott Suggs and Terrence Ross. The Three UW gunslingers are starting to find their mark, and just in time for the NCAA Tournament. But can they not only step up, but improve on their play like Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday did around this same time last year?

February has been a bittersweet month for Washington Basketball fans. Barring an unexpected collapse, the Huskies will likely join the field of 68 in the NCAA Tournament - one of the country's great sports spectacles - when it kicks off three weeks from now. In the past, an invitation to the tournament alone would have been cause for celebration. But that was a different time, and Washington a different program. The fans were just happy they had something to distract them from the fact that the start of football season was still five months away.

That was prior to Lorenzo Romar's arrival nine years ago, but since then he's turned the entire UW basketball community on its ear. The Huskies have earned trips to the Sweet 16 three times in six years, missing the Big Dance just twice since their first trip in 2004. During that span, they've emerged as one of the most prominent basketball programs on the west coast.

But there's a price to pay for all of that success, mainly in the form of higher expectations and increased scrutiny.

The Huskies entered the 2010-11 season with a palpable buzz surrounding the program. A roster bursting with quality upperclassmen, including Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate Isaiah Thomas, was surrounded by a host of talented youngsters eager to make their mark On paper, this was the team UW fans and coaches alike had been waiting for.

But fate had other plans, as the Huskies have endured arguably the most tumultuous season thus far in the Lorenzo Romar era. Injuries, off court distractions, and inconsistent play marred the first three months of the season.

Yet with the season teetering on the precipice of collapse after a dismal three-game road losing streak, the Huskies suddenly got back on their feet again. As a program, Washington has always been at its best with its back against the wall. Last year's second-half surge was just another example, and this year fans and coaches are hoping the team follows a similar course. Whether a product of the program's culture or pure coincidence, Washington rose to the challenge following their dismal Oregon road trip. They rattled off a convincing three-game winning streak before losing a heartbreaker at Arizona in front of a prime-time, nationally-televised audience.

Despite the loss, the game made a statement - not just for Arizona or Washington which both gave impressive performances - for the entire beleaguered Pac-10.

The Huskies have three conference games remaining, and all of them wil be playd in the raucous confines of the newly-christened Alaska Airlines Arena. At 19-8, the Huskies probably need three more wins to cement their place in the NCAA Tournament. The schedule-makers gave UW a huge gift by having them close out their regular season at home, where they're nearly unbeatable. They're also pulling for a UCLA loss to at least one of the Arizona schools this weekend, which would be good enough to earn a second place Pac-10 finish, assuming they win out the regular season. A runner-up finish not only gives them a first round bye in the conference tournament, but also means they'd be facing a weary opponent coming off 24 hours' rest.

A strong performance in the conference tournament is important for a number of reasons, including an automatic ticket to the Big Dance should they win the whole thing. It's also important because the Huskies remain very much an unfinished product.

Washington is a team of offensive balance, but despite being ranked second in the country in scoring, averaging over 85 points a game, they're more vulnerable than the statistics suggest. Matched up against slower tempo, zone-oriented teams, Washington struggles to find answers. Their zone offense just isn't that effective. While Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning give the Huskies a potent 1-2 scoring punch, they're also streaky and prone to cold offensive stretches. As they go, so does Washington's scoring.

Which is what makes the play of the Three Amigos so important as the Huskies round the home stretch.

What Washington lacks is a consistent third scorer and mid-range threat capable of creating his own shot when nothing else is there. At times, Justin Holiday has been that player. The Husky co-Captain was never built to carry such a heavy scoring burden, but he's done an admirable job of rising to the occasion during his senior year. At the same time, he's isn't a true shot creator - not in the vein of Quincy Pondexter or Brandon Roy at any rate, which is really what the team really needs.

At various points this season, Wilcox, Suggs, and Ross have all earned their moments in the spotlight. They've given observers plenty to get excited about, as all three are blessed with an impressive blend of size, athleticism and offensive firepower. More often than not, however, they tend to hover out beyond the three-point line, bombing away from outside. It's a useful skill, but the Huskies have learned the hard way what happens when you're too reliant on three-point shooting.

Recently, the trio have started to show signs of doing more. CJ Wilcox has been especially impressive, averaging nearly 13 points per contest in the five games since the Oregon debacle. Same goes for Suggs, though he's been sidelined with a knee injury which may keep him out of action for another week. His stint in the UW starting lineup was a successful one before the injury. There's no question Suggs' confidence steadily grew with each start.

Ross' physicality, versatility and instincts around the basket make him ideally suited for a Quincy Pondexter-type role. Too tall for guards to defend and too quick for opposing forwards to keep up with, Ross' unorthodox, fade-away delivery makes him a matchup nightmare. Confidence is obviously not a concern for the Portland phenom, and he's a difference-maker on the glass when he's on his game.

As the Huskies learned during their three-game slide, offensive productivity doesn't mean taking more three pointers – far from it. It means being less predictable, taking defenders off the dribble and making things happen inside 15 feet, especially against the zone, when the offense is otherwise stagnating. Wilcox, Suggs and Ross have all the skills to show more of an offensive repertoire, but it's only come in spurts. The Huskies simply need more of it at this crucial point in the season, as teams key more and more on stopping Thomas.

Washington is a team loaded with potential, and they remain the most dangerous team in the conference by a considerable margin, even if their record doesn't show it. The Huskies have gotten to this point on the backs of their talented veterans, but it's the Three Amigos who hold the key to unlocking UW's NCAA Tournament fortunes. Top Stories