Huskies take fate out of their hands

This is certainly not the final test grade the Washington Huskies wanted to send to the NCAA Selection Committee as part of their regular season resume. After an inexcusable loss in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament to the Oregon State Beavers Thursday, the fate of the Dawgs lies in the hands of the Committee.

Now the Huskies have to rely on other bubble teams and mid-major Cinderellas to lose if they hope to extend their NCAA Tournament appearance streak to four. They certainly did themselves no favors, failing to beat a NCAA Tournament-bound team all season.

As far as the game itself, Washington flat out did not come out with any sort of intensity. They looked lazy on defense, and at halftime Head Coach Lorenzo Romar called the effort "negligent". The Huskies' disinterest was frankly shocking; it was as if they thought their ticket to the NCAA post-season party had already been punched. Fifty-two points in the paint - 30 coming in the first half - was not the recipe for success.

Obviously there were some choice words in the locker-room during halftime and the Huskies all of a sudden looked motivated, going on a 22-3 run to take a lead midway through the second half. Oregon State's 2-3 zone was dissected to near-perfection during the run. More importantly, the comeback was made, for the most part, without Aziz N'Diaye, Washington's most valuable defensive player. The junior center sat out much of the half with foul trouble, and he was only available for a few minutes down the stretch before fouling out with under four minutes to go. With a six-point lead, the Dawgs could not play any sort of interior defense, or rebound for that matter. For the second game in a row, the loss of N'Diaye hurt the Huskies badly.

Tony Wroten put the team on his back in crunch time, converting eight of Washington's final nine points. At one point the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year buried six consecutive free throws to hold off the surging Beavers. However, the moment clearly got to Wroten with under a minute to play and the game in the balance.

Wroten had four opportunities to tie the game with one free throw and he missed each attempt, spoiling a UW freshman record for points in a game with 29. To go along with the horrific defensive effort, Washington shot 46 percent from the free throw line as a team (12-26) – that is where the blame should lie. It wasn't just Tony that was clanking those freebies.

For Oregon State, they pounded the ball inside with little resistance, especially when N'Diaye was not in the game. Devon Collier, Eric Moreland, and Joe Burton completely neutralized Washington's athleticism, accounting for 46 of OSU's 86 points. The Huskies also seemingly forgot the scouting report on Ahmad Starks, as they allowed him to knock down four open three-pointers. And although he missed what were some crucial free throws in the last minute, Jared Cunningham is the clear leader for the Beavers and he bounced back from a poor game on Wednesday against Washington State with a double-double versus the Dawgs, scoring 18 points and collecting 10 rebounds.

Should UW be fortunate enough to make the Big Dance as an at-large team they will be considered a dangerous squad to face because they have impressive talent and athleticism. A No. 4 or a No. 5 seed will certainly not have a cakewalk in the first round with Washington at a potential No. 12 or No. 13 seed. But therein lies their silver lining; the Huskies lack discipline for astoundingly long stretches. This includes missed free throws, turnovers, poor shot selection, and missed defensive assignments. Granted, most teams have these poor stretches from time to time, but why is it so glaring with this roster? Certainly they lack some overall experience, but with 31 games together under their belts, that can hardly be used as an excuse at this point in the season. They are simply too talented.

Although Wroten and Terrence Ross claim most of the offensive attention - and for good reason - the two "linchpin" players are N'Diaye and Abdul Gaddy. Gaddy, the junior guard from Tacoma, averages 33 minutes a game and when he is in rhythm, the rest of the team is as well. During the first half of Thursday's game, Gaddy struggled. He took questionable shots from the three-point line, finishing 1-5 for the half, and Washington found themselves down 13. In the second half Gaddy bounced back. He converted both of his three point attempts and handed out five of his six assists as the Dawgs rallied to take the lead.

When the offense is rolling it is because Gaddy is aggressive in his scoring and distributing, and it only makes players like Wroten, Ross and C.J. Wilcox that much more effective because the defense has more on their plate. While Wroten can often create for himself - which helps to carry the team when Gaddy is not performing well - the rest of the squad suffers. They need his distribution to shine.

Gaddy is also the player often times finding Gant for his patented 18-footer or dumping off to N'Diaye for points in the paint. When Gaddy plays poorly the offense goes incredibly stagnant, relying on almost completely on Wroten for tough finishes around the rim or poor shot selection from the outside.

Defensively, N'Diaye is the catalyst. When the Senegalese seven-footer is able to play without fouling, it allows for the guards to be more aggressive. Should the guards gamble on a steal they have the assurance that N'Diaye is anchoring the paint, waiting for a block or an altered shot. When N'Diaye is saddled with fouls, Washington's guards have to be more careful and have to make a concentrated effort to stay in front of their man, because the 7-foot presence is not quite there with backups like Shawn Kemp and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Ever since he arrived at Washington, Lorenzo Romar's defense has centered around ball pressure, steals, and forcing the opposition into mistakes. Should the defense play with any sort of hesitation, the strength of the defense is undermined. The Huskies had to make allowances this year because of the loss of senior Scott Suggs. With one less guard to rotate in and keep the pressure on, Romar had to be smarter about how to defend.

Even with an underwhelming effort, Washington was still winning late against Oregon State. But for the second game in a row they failed to close out the game after taking a lead. The loss of N'Diaye to foul trouble and the inability to close out the last two games go hand in hand. Against UCLA the Dawgs allowed two offensive rebounds before ultimately giving up the lead for good on a putback.

On Thursday, the Huskies were either forced to foul and send Oregon State to the line or allowed point-blank layups with N'Diaye out of the game. When Cunningham drove to the basket for the go ahead basket, the absence of N'Diaye was noticeable – there was no size inside to deter his shot, and he converted easily. If N'Diaye had been in there, just him standing there would have been enough for stymie the Beaver guard and make him look for an alternate path to the bucket.

Should the NCAA pass on giving Washington their post-season pass, it will really put the cap on what has been an odd regular season. Sure, the Dawgs came away with just their second outright Conference Championship since the 1950's; however a collapse at the end of the year and a trip to the NIT would clearly be a major disappointment. With two potential NBA lottery picks - if not surefire first round draft picks - on the team, the Huskies should not be in the situation they find themselves in now. The only thing they can do now is wait for the Selection Committee to lower their gavel, pray for the popping of a lot of bracket bubbles, and hope for the best.


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