Beach's Bits – Progress Made?

The road hasn't been kind to Washington this season. After opening conference play with convincing wins over quality Oregon teams, the Dawgs took several gigantic steps backward this past weekend. Against two of the conferences supposed weakest programs, the Huskies could do little right. But Lorenzo Romar is holding out hope that the lessons learned will pay dividends down the road.

It's the same song they've been singing all season. Against Colorado, their defense was a disaster despite an enormous physical advantage. The same slow defensive rotations, poor focus and generally apathetic effort overall. The post defense in particular was as uninspired as it has been all season - surprising because Aziz N'Daiye was a defensive dynamo against the Oregon schools.

"I wasn't going to answer my phone after that game," Romar said Monday with a grin, knowing that some former players just might be tempted to give him some thoughts on what took place in Boulder.

The Huskies are a young team, and it shows. Though the starting lineup is relatively experienced from a program tenure perspective, they're woefully short of on-court success. None of the returning players played a central role for the team last season, and while they're obviously immensely talented they are still adapting to new individual roles while crafting a new team identity.

It's a work in progress. And the Utah game, while brutal to watch for any neutral observer – let alone Washington fans – Romar is steadfast in his belief that the team jumped several levels in their maturity, especially when dealing with adversity on the road.

"Most will look at our score against Utah - and it was a four-point victory - and say 'Wow, they are really struggling'," Romar said of the Huskies' 57-53 win Saturday. "I don't think anyone understands the progress we made in that game. I don't care what the score was. We made unbelievable progress: We turned the ball over eight times, and three of those turnovers were setting screens; moving screens they called. Those are turnovers. So I thought we did a great job of taking care of the basketball.

"And I went through every possession and looked at the shot clock when we took shots. In the past, we'd been shooting the ball anywhere from 35 to 27 seconds on multiple occasions; this game it was getting below 27 (seconds) a lot more.

"It was interesting; we shot 61 percent in the second half in that game doing that, and that was huge progress. That was something we can draw from and take that into other games, especially when we get back on the road again."

Romar has experienced similar challenges with his UW teams in the past. The 2004 season – Romar's second with the program and a team that lost eight of their first thirteen games before suddenly gelling and eventually earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament –comes immediately to mind.

"That group took a year to figure that out," Romar remembered. That team was similarily loaded with talented guards –including future stars Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Wil Conroy, Bobby Jones and Tre Simmons – but received few contributions from their thin post rotation. "It took them a while. None of them wanted to be the guy to pass it; they all wanted to be the guy to shoot it - so it took them a while."

They did, and permanently altered the course of the program.

The 2008 team, which featured Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby in starring roles, struggled similarly the first two thirds of the season. That was until Quincy Pondexter's breakout game at USC galvanized the team and Washington rattled off six straight wins to close conference play.

"What we talk about from Day One is, we have to be good enough defensively, we have to be able to take care of the basketball, and execute on the nights, especially on the road, where you don't shoot the ball well and things aren't going your way and teams are slowing it down and you're not getting transition." Romar said, noting the same formula that was able to get the 2004 and 2008 teams over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament. But will that happen this year?

Washington returns home with a 3-1 record on the season, just a half game behind the conference leading Buffaloes. Inexplicably, as horribly as the Huskies looked over the weekend, the rest of the conference might actually be worse. Furthermore, the Dawgs are the beneficiaries of some brilliant scheduling advantages. Five of their next seven games will be played at home, before the Dawgs hit the road again against the Arizona schools which are struggling even worse than Washington is. On top of that, with the new unbalanced schedule, the Dawgs will skip the road trip to Bay area schools – two of the better Pac-12 teams this season.

"It seems like we say this every year," remarked Romar two weeks into conference play. "I can't think of a year that's been more wide open."

So which team will Husky fans be watching the rest of the season? The conference champion caliber home squad that thoroughly dominated solid Oregon teams, or the timid puppies that tried to give away a win to a horrible Utah squad after embarrassing themselves for the second time this season by getting blown out by Colorado two nights before.

If I were a betting man, I'd lean towards the continued maturation of a young team packed with quality talent. The schedule works firmly in their favor, and there's no way they won't be fired up for ESPN game day against Arizona in Tucson – and if you think Utah was bad, wait until you get a load of the Sun Devils.

"I think there are 5-6 teams right now with only one loss and one with zero losses," he added. "It seems like it's going to be a season that's going to go to the very end, the very last week to determine who is going to go where."

Unfortunately, things may feel pretty hollow for a while even if they're winning. It's probably going to take an act of Congress for the Huskies to earn an at large NCAA bid the way things are going. There's just too many bad losses. They're going to have to dominate the rest of conference play to the tune of 10-12 wins to do it, and they've already used up one of their gimmee games losing to the Buffs.

The conference tournament is going to be exciting – and meaningful. There's going to be a whole lot at stake for a lot of mediocre teams. Young teams like Washington and Arizona should look considerably different than they did in early January, and should figure prominently in the conference tournament title hunt. They're both in the same boat. Young, defensively challeneged and badly in need of leadership – but also loaded with talent.

"This could be one of those years, in the last week a team drops from second to sixth, or because they won their last game at the buzzer, finish second instead of fourth," Romar said. "I think it's going to be one of those years."


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