Beach's Bits

The Washington Huskies are conference champions. Though Saturday's loss to UCLA may have dampened the celebration, the Huskies earned the right to call themselves champions. The Huskies, picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 pre-season media poll, overcame one of the league's most inexperienced rosters to stake their claim atop the Pac-12 for the second time in four years.

While the talent and potential assembled on the roster was obvious, Washington was faced with the task of replacing four starters, including star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The team's prospects this season were really a complete unknown.

The only constant around head coach Lorenzo Romar's program lately is that it never looks the same from one year to the next. Without Thomas, who was picked last in the NBA draft and is now starting (and starring) at point guard for the Sacramento Kings, Washington turned to an unproven cast of talented reserves, role players and freshman to fill out the their rotation.

With top returning scorer Scott Suggs lost for the season with a toe injury early on, what should have been a veteran rotation became one of the youngest in the conference.

The Huskies were a work in progress all season long, but despite their many ups and downs, their maturation, particularly in the backcourt, was impressive.

With Suggs unavailable, Romar was forced to integrate two point guards into the starting lineup; Abdul Gaddy and prep phenon Tony Wroten. They weren't ideal backcourt mates. Neither is a great shooter and their skills don't necessarily complement each other since they're both at their best with the ball in their hands.

And while Gaddy took his share of criticism for the Huskies slow start, it become clear over the last 45 days that he understood his role in directing UW's offense. His unselfish leadership helped integrate Wroten into the system and eventually allowed the talented freshman the freedom to operate without being encumbered by the more cerebral aspects of the game that often drag freshman point guards down.

Over the course of the season, Wroten's game has evolved to the point where one would be hard pressed to define his position. He's equal parts guard and forward. He has become the team's best offensive rebounder, their most dangerous transition player and the Pac-12's biggest backcourt mismatch. He's non-traditional in just about every way, yet perhaps no player in the conference is more difficult to defend.

The point guard position wasn't the only position that had to be redefined. Sophomore Terrence Ross entered the season surrounded by considerable hype, but the weight of the offense rested on the unproven shoulders of him and C.J. Wilcox. For the most part, Ross has done an admirable job of stepping into the team's primary scoring role after averaging just eight points a game last year. When he's fully engaged and focused on the offensive end. he's the deadliest scorer in the conference – and it isn't close. Washington has had its share of talented individual scorers over the years, and the former Portland star combines many of the same traits that made Quincy Pondexter and Brandon Roy so special. His maturation and improved consistency have been key to the Huskies' late season surge.

Were it not for an ill-timed injury, we might be discussing Wilcox as the third Washington player in the conference Player of the Year conversation. Perhaps no player on the Husky roster has had a bigger influence over the team's success than CJ when he's dialed in from outside. The redshirt sophomore from Pleasant Grove, Utah stormed out of the gates before a stress fracture to his hip sidelined him for three games in late January. Unable to practice since then, the Huskies third leading scorer has slowly worked his way back into game form, hitting his stride again after a lights out shooting performance against UCLA.

Heading into this season, one of the biggest question marks surrounding Wilcox was whether or not he could make the transition from a pure shooter to a more versatile, all-around scorer. While the injury temporarily derailed his development, his growing confidence attacking the basket has given the Huskies the deadliest one-two-three scoring punch in the Pac-12.

But the Huskies wouldn't have gone 14-4 in conference play without improvement from their front court. Washington's biggest question mark heading into the season was in the post. Senior co-captain Darnell Gant provided leadership and familiarity with the system, and energetic 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye hoped to expand on his promising sophomore season. But that still left the Huskies without an obvious backup to the foul prone N'Diaye. Three freshmen stepped in to the fill the void.

While it's not unusual for freshmen to immediately impact a roster during the modern era of college basketball, young big men have a more difficult transition than their backcourt peers. To their credit, UW's freshmen forwards have done an admirable job filling in the gaps on the roster. Redshirt freshman Desmond Simmons immediately stepped into a starting role with his junkyard dog approach to the game. Over the last 12 months, late signee Shawn Kemp, Jr. has slowly crafted his body into playing shape, giving the Huskies a much needed back-up to N'Diaye in the post. The Huskies also received a much needed front-court lift when star freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins joined the team after the Alamo Bowl, giving the Huskies an additional level of physicality as the front court molded into shape.

After stumbling through the first half of the season, the Huskies slowly began to gel. Despite navigating nagging injuries to Wilcox, N'Diaye and Wroten, the Huskies started to come together as a team, even if it wasn't pretty at times. The Huskies, despite lacking consistency on either end of the floor, fully embraced group basketball concepts, taking advantage of their exceptional size on the perimeter to attack the basket and overwhelm their opponents with their physicality. After a rough start against the Rocky Mountain schools they finally exercised their road demons, earning big wins as they swept the Arizona schools. They battled and fought behind heroic performances by Ross, Wroten and Wilcox.

Suddenly, as the Pac-12 languished in quiet obscurity, the Huskies grew into something special.

In past seasons, Washington was a team that often won in blowout fashion but struggled to close out the close ones. Not so with their year's team. This team won more conference road games than at any time during Romar's tenure at Montlakes. They made what coaches call 'winning plays'; plays like Wroten's game-saving block against Arizona.

There won't be any asterisk in the record books for this team next to their outright conference title. They won it because they fought harder, took advantage of opportunities, and battled their way through early stumbles. Simply put, they wanted it more than anyone else.

Though this year's team is dramatically different than the Huskies of years gone by, they're incredibly similar in one way: Romar teams often struggle early in the season and then flash their potential during conference play before hitting their stride in late February.

True to form, their maturation has been even more dramatic this season. After four months of what has amounted to a great tune up, the post-season is finally here. And if recent history is any indication, it's the Huskies' time to shine.


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