Beach's Bits – NYC Blues

NEW YORK CITY - The Huskies could have been flattened by Duke Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. After a disappointing first half where nothing seemed to go their way, nobody would have been surprised to see Washington mail it in the second half and race from the building as quickly as possible, eager to put a forgettable road trip behind them. They were reeling.

But the Dawgs came out invigorated after intermission. They attacked the bigger Blue Devils, especially after Aziz N'Diaye left the game with a knee injury, capitalizing on Duke's inability to stop penetration. The UW center never returned to the game and will be evaluated Monday. It was hoped this trip would be a national showcase for one of country's rising programs, but the Huskies' immaturity and lack of leadership were ultimately their undoing. For a team badly in need of some momentum heading into conference play, this loss – coupled with the losses to Nevada and Marquette - are going to sting.

During the first half, Washington was rolled in just about every metric in the box score. The country's third most effective rebounding team got creamed on the glass, 27-18. They turned over the ball nine times, managed just five assists, and couldn't muster a single blocked shot. In short, they were totally outplayed in every facet of the game.

"We dug ourselves a big hole in the first half being down seventeen, eighteen points," Washington point guard Tony Wroten shared. "I don't know what it was, but we just weren't playing like we usually play, and once we found our groove, it was a little too late."

This was supposed to be a coming out party of sorts for budding sophomores Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox, but both players came out of the gate misfiring badly, each tossing up uncharacteristic airballs. As a result, the Huskies fell behind quickly. Were it not for the aggressiveness of Wroten, the first half would have been much, much worse. So in an ironic twist, the game became Wroten's coming out celebration, even though he told the media afterward that he would have traded all 23 of his points for the win.

"I thought Wroten had a great game for them," said legendary Duke Head Coach Mike Kryzyewski after the game. "I though this was his best performance and he was terrific. He's a big-time talent."

The Huskies were a bad match-up for the Blue Devils, who didn't play especially well. Washington was more athletic, and Duke doesn't match up well one-on-one against bigger, athletic back courts. Had the Huskies brought anything close to their effort they gave against Marquette Tuesday night, the outcome may have been markedly different.

The Dawgs' play was marred by the same issues that have reared their heads repeatedly during the early going this season. They seem to have no idea what they're doing with the ball half the time when they can't fast break. They get lost in their own offense, often caught standing around and end up taking ridiculous shots as the shot clock winds down. Sure, every now and than they'll make some wildly athletic shot, but this group of players seems to take pride in trying to make the extra pass, which many times makes things tougher for them, not easier – and that leads to plenty of empty possessions.

The good news is, this team is maturing - just not as quickly as one might hope. Take for instance the play of Wroten. During the first half, he carried the team, attacking the paint relentlessly. He scored nine points in the period on an efficient 3-4 shooting from the field. Yet he also turned the ball over five times; twice for offensive fouls dribbling out of control, the others for errant passes. During the second half, he played under control and didn't commit a single miscue – but by then the damage had already been done, and he wasn't the only culprit.

Both Ross and Darnell Gant attempted highlight reel dunks – and bricked them – an easy four points lost to showing off. In the Huskies' three consecutive road losses, the shots they've missed have been a bigger factor than the ones they've made. This team, moreso than any in recent memory, often seems to lose sight of the more fundamental aspects of the game.

The Huskies did finally summon their collective energy, and with a raucous UW fan base behind them turned a possible rout into a ball game.

Early into the second half, Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar wisely recognized Duke couldn't stop their dribble penetration. He directed his team to take the ball straight at the Blue Devils' interior defenders, and they did. Wilcox, as well as Wroten, were revelations.

While he struggled shooting from the perimeter, Wilcox was unstoppable off the dribble. It may not mean much in December, but that growth should pay big dividends come conference play. Gone is the one dimensional three-point specialist, and the Huskies will be much better for it when they put all of the pieces together.

Wroten, on the other hand, has always been at his best acting as the aggressor. He did a marvelous job in that role during the second half, piercing the Blue Devils' porous perimeter defense en route to a game high 23 points on 8-12 shooting. This was easily his best game yet, and he did all that damage in just 24 minutes.

The Huskies were especially effective against Duke when they went smaller. The remaining bigs that did play - Darnell Gant and Desmond Simmons – combined for eight points and 10 rebounds in 53 total minutes. The game sped up and Duke had a hard time reacting quickly enough on defense to counter Washington's team speed. They will have to embrace their guard orientation even further if N'Daiye is gone for any length of time.

"I was proud our guys didn't quit," explained Romar afterwards. "They hung in and they battled, scrapped and I think this concludes a very long road trip where our team has really learned some very valuable lessons."

So how are Husky fans supposed to take this road trip? They lost all three games, but there were encouraging signs during all three games. They can obviously play with just about any team in the country when they're playing Husky basketball, but they don't do it consistently. At least not yet.

And how much should fans care about "encouraging signs"? The UW basketball program is poised to become the premier basketball team in the conference. The traditional powers – UCLA and Arizona – seem to be suffering some serious setbacks, and there doesn't appear to be much in the way from keeping the Huskies from moving on up.

But do top programs put stock in "encouraging signs?" Right now Washington is a .500 basketball team, that's just a fact. And it's also unacceptable given the talent on the team. The biggest downside to the losses is that they, along with the rest of the conference, are going to fall out of the national spotlight until tournament time. On top of that, they're going to have to dominate conference play to have any shot at a decent seed in the NCAA tournament, which is not going to be easy.


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