For Hoops, The Season Starts Now

For the Washington Huskies Basketball program, the season starts now. There are no more patsies and no more empty wins, no more meaningless possessions or silly alley-oops. Non-conference frivolities are over; it's game time. This is where the fun begins. This is where we'll find out just how quickly these Hoop Dawgs come together as a unit.

"We're about to be thrown into the fire here," said UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "We're going on the road again, and we told this to our team before the St. Louis game, the games coming up would be a lot like league play, in terms of going on the road and the quality of opponents that we're going to be playing."

The Huskies are in as good a position as any team in the Pac-12 heading into December. They are relatively healthy and will be back to full strength when senior Scott Suggs returns to the hardwood for the New York trip. Despite being thoroughly dominated by a Saint Louis team that stormed through the 76 Classic over the Thanksgiving break, the Huskies are moving forward.

Washington is fortunate to be in the spot they're in relative to the rest of the Pac-12. The conference tanked out of the gates. Pre-season conference championship favorite UCLA crumbled early, losing four of their first six games. Arizona looked nothing like the Cinderella story that battled their way to the Elite Eight last season, and while popular pick Cal is currently 6-1, they've been far from world beaters. Both Stanford and Oregon State have impressed en route to 5-1 starts.

As badly as the conference has faltered, the Pac-12 is going to be lucky to earn three NCAA tournament bids come March. The Huskies need every win they can get, and that means winning non-conference games on the road or at neutral sites.

The Houston Baptist game was a symbolic end to the Huskies 2011-2012 ramp-up period. It marked the initial phase of rotation "try outs", if there was ever such a thing. Washington's starting lineup hasn't changed since the start of the season, and has been effective. For the most part, they've started fast and have imposed their will on opponents, the SLU game the obvious exception. Other than sophomore Terrence Ross, the starters are all upperclassmen and it shows. The rotation hasn't really changed much either, but that's where things bog down – mainly due to youth. The bench is nothing but freshmen, and they're already playing key minutes. Against HBU, Romar continued to audition freshmen for roles in the rotation. The results have been encouraging, but hardly conclusive.

That will change when Scott Suggs returns to the rotation next week. Romar addressed Suggs' current status.

"With an injury like that, you feel like you're fine," said Romar. "There's zero pain, so what's the holdup? Until it's fully healed and you've gone through strengthening exercises, you can have a setback. The worst is like a pulled hamstring. It feels fine until you make that first quick-twitch move, and then you start all over again. We're trying to avoid that from happening by making sure it's totally strong before he comes back."

The Huskies are at their best penetrating the paint and finding three-point shooters stacked outside, but they still don't appear fully in sync. Too many short, congested interior passes and not enough driving and dishing to the perimeter seemed to hurt UW, especially in St. Louis. The Huskies' strength lies in their shooting ability, and despite the presence of two (soon to be three) of the best shooters in the country, the Dawgs aren't taking nearly as many three-pointers as they did last season. Normally, I wouldn't advocate a heavy emphasis on the three-pointers, but with this team, I'll make an exception.

The Huskies are shooting five fewer three-pointers per game so far this year, despite a nearly double-digit improvement in three point percentage to 46 percent. When Suggs returns, their three-point shooting should improve even further, as their offense becomes even more perimeter-oriented. One of the most exciting questions coming into this season was what the team might look like with all three shooters on the floor at the same time. That answer has been delayed a bit, but we're finally about to find out.

"We've always done that over the years," Romar explained when asked about utilizing four-guard lineups. "I think the only year we didn't do it was the year when we had Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes. That year we also had some other guys that were bigger guys, but for the most part we've always done that at some point in the season. That's why we try to recruit versatile players, so we can put a lot of different combinations on the floor."

With the Three Amigos (Suggs, Wilcox and Ross – they need a better nickname) spreading the floor, opponents are going to have to defend Washington's perimeter well beyond the three-point line giving the rest of the lineup an awful lot of room to work with. Add another capable shooter in Abdul Gaddy, and the Huskies could have the best shooting four-guard rotation in the nation.

Defensively, this is a solid group and their length and athleticism means they could be considerably more than just that by the end of the year. Ross, Wilcox and Suggs are all stellar defenders, and Darnel Gant and Aziz N'Daiye both impact the game on that end of the floor.

"I thought (Ross) had the potential to be a defensive stopper," said Romar. "I always thought he had the potential. I've never just said - that's going to be the guy that's going to be our stopper. But with his quickness and his athleticism, I knew that potentially he could be a guy…one of the guys that when we're playing against a team that has a really good perimeter player, he could be one of the guys - along with C.J. and Scott - that we could be comfortable with. Last year he wasn't one of those guys, but this year we thought going into the season he could be one of those guys."

That said, Nevada, Marquette and Duke will pick the Huskies apart if they don't improve their defensive rotations. Early struggles are to be expected with a young team still defining their roles, but UW is giving up far too many open looks due to blown defensive assignments. Much of that is due to an over-reliance on freshmen. Out of necessity, Romar has turned to freshmen for nearly 70 of the team's 200 minutes a game.

Individually, the Washington players are living up to their pre-season billing. Ross and Wilcox have taken dramatic leaps as expected, and seem to be settling into their roles as primary scorers. Gaddy picked up right where he left off prior to his injury and Aziz N'Daiye has obviously learned much in the past 12 months. All three freshmen forwards have demonstrated immense potential, though they'll continue to be used primarily as role players this season.
PLAYER GRADES:

C.J. Wilcox: A-. The sophomore sharpshooter has been the Huskies' steadiest scorer in the early going, draining three-pointers at a prodigious clip. Wilcox is starting to put his exceptional athleticism to use as well, attacking the basket and asserting himself more often on the glass. The more he becomes comfortable creating his own shot off the dribble, the harder it's going to be for opponents to stop him.

Terrence Ross: A-. The Huskies' most dynamic player has taken his game to the next level. He's the Dawgs' most effective post scorer and a rebounding force, while maturing into the team's top defender. What he isn't yet however, is the cold-blooded shot maker the Huskies need him to be. When he dials it in consistently from beyond the arc, his impact will only grow.

Abdul Gaddy: B. Gaddy continues to be the Huskies' "Steady Eddie". When he's in his groove, he's one of UW's most consistently productive players, but he's also too unselfish at times and tends to disappear. The team is at its best when Gaddy is assertive and aggressive offensively. He just needs to do it more often.

Aziz N'Diaye: B-. The Huskies need Aziz to just be Aziz. He's a physically intimidating, rough and tumble post defender who earns opportunity baskets. He's not a natural scorer, but he's a serviceable interior target when the guards are sharing the ball effectively. As promised, he's done a much better job avoiding foul trouble while dramatically increasing his minutes and shot blocking. His post moves remain a work in progress.

Desmond Simmons: B-. Simmons' impact on the floor is difficult to quantify and his contributions often don't manifest themselves in the box score. He's a blue collar workhorse and the Huskies' scrappiest player. While he won't fill the Huskies' offensive post void, his confidence continues to grow in his jumper. Of the freshman forwards, he's the likeliest to see his minutes increase as the season rolls on.

Tony Wroten: B-. Wroten is an enigma. On the one hand, his natural ability and raw athleticism are exceptional. His size at the point allows him to impact the game in ways few players can and he's a highlight clip waiting to happen. But on the flip side, he's often out of control and plays with little discipline. He must improve his self control and poor free throw shooting. In close games where every possession matters, he's going to have to prove that he can make fundamental plays as effortlessly as he does the flashy ones.

Darnell Gant: C. Gant's final season at Washington has been an inconsistent one thus far. He hasn't been much of a factor offensively despite being one of the Huskies' best athletes, but his value as the Huskies' most versatile defender shouldn't be overlooked either. Washington needs Gant to be a more of a presence under the hoop, otherwise he'll continue to cede his playing time to more physical forwards.

Martin Breunig: Incomplete. For most players, it's tough to get a good read on a freshman averaging 11 minutes a night; however pretty much everything we've seen out of Breunig thus far has been impressive. He's extremely active on the glass, particularly on the offensive end. Like Simmons, he has a knack for getting into the middle of the action wherever it takes place. Though he has yet to establish himself offensively, all of the tools are there for a very productive career at Washington.

Shawn Kemp, Jr.: Incomplete. Like Breunig, Kemp hasn't played much, but it's tough not to like what we've witnessed out of the second generation Reign Man so far. He's Washington's most-skilled inside scoring threat despite not playing much. He's physically tough and an eager learner. He also gets lost though, and still has a lot to learn. Expect Kemp to continue to factor into the rotation, backing up N'Diaye against bigger lineups.

Hikeem Stewart: Incomplete. Hikeem has struggled in limited minutes during the first five games of his Husky career, overwhelmed at times by the big stage. He just hasn't played enough to evaluate at this point.


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