It's Now or Never for UW Hoops

For the 2012-2013 Washington basketball team, the last couple of weeks of the 2012 calendar year will set the tone for the rest of the season. Toss out the excuses - we know they've been banged up - and forget about the maturation process with their veteran-laden lineup; it's put up or shut up. Put your money where your mouth is. It's poop-or-get-off-the-pot time.

Only nine games in and it's already that time for the Husky Hoop Dawgs.

Let's pretend for a minute that the last month and a half hadn't happened, that the Huskies' injury-plagued first nine games never occurred. Let's pretend that Thursday's game against Cal Poly is the team's first game of the season. While we're dreaming, I'd like a pony for Christmas. Yet that's precisely the approach the a husky coaching staff must take as non-conference play winds down. They've got no choice at this point and sitting back licking a month's worth of wounds and crying in their egg nog won't get them anywhere.

Based on what we've seen thus far there's still reason for optimism, even if it's a little like putting your faith in Santa Claus delivering your presents on time despite getting stuck in the chimney.

First the reality: As the injuries piled up, so did the losses. UW's rotation was thin to begin with, though they've nobody to blame but themselves for their shorthanded predicament. But injuries are no excuse. Despite a hobbled rotation, Washington had no business losing to Albany or Nevada. Those wearing rose-tinted glasses would suggest there's a silver lining to playing with a short rotation - it forced the team's "leaders" to elevate their play while throwing underused role players into the fire in prominent roles. I'm not sure I buy it with this group.

As I watched the Huskies put the screws to Jackson State during the first 10 minutes last Saturday evening, I couldn't help but think that they are a better team than their 5-4 record indicates. Then they fell apart and I, like every other observer, found myself thinking, 'man, do these guys suck.'

A third of the way through the season, here's what we know - as expected several key members from last year's team have taken a leap forward in contributions. Abdul Gaddy has been the leader on the floor and his scoring has taken a similar jump. It's the same story with Aziz N'diaye, who is averaging nearly a double-double this season. Desmond Simmons has arguably taken the biggest jump in productivity, emerging as the team's best rebounder and stat stuffer. C.J. Wilcox ranks among the top scorers in the conference and despite being slowed by nagging injuries, Scott Suggs has emerged as the team's most consistent scorer. Freshman Andrew Andrews' play had surged after a slow start before a sprained ankle sidelined him for a couple of weeks. Even Hikeem Stewart has made progress since sliding into the rotation in Andrews' absence.

In theory there's enough UW offensive firepower available to compete for a conference championship against a marginally improved Pac-12, but that's assuming they decide to play like Washington - the reigning conference champs, I might add. They haven't so far - not even close. They've had their moments. Their performance against Ohio State demonstrated that they're more than capable of competing against high level competition. On the flip side the games against Albany, Nevada and most recently an 0-7 Jackson State squad showed the team to actually be a rudderless ship floundering in mediocrity. Those performances were some of the worst of the Lorenzo Romar era and one has to question how interested the leaders are in being anything more than bookmarks in a season that will immediately be stricken from Husky fans' memories once it's over. That's how bad they've been at times.

It's pretty obvious what they're missing: Leadership.

It pains me to question such high character players like Gaddy, Suggs and Wilcox. They are all great kids on and off the floor. But clearly this team is lacking leadership, and that falls on the shoulders of the upperclassmen. Those three players have a combined 14 years in the program. There's no excuse for their flat play. Wilcox may be averaging nearly 20 points a game but the gaudy scoring numbers aren't telling the whole story. Gaddy may have doubled his scoring output but he still disappears for long stretches. Scott Suggs is hands down the team's most reliable scorer when he's healthy, but even his presence hasn't altered the team's wandering course since his return three games ago.

Terrence Ross was definitely "the man" last year even if it took a while to get there. Say what you want about Tony Wroten, but there's no doubt he would do just about anything to put the team on his back. He may have lacked cohesion with the rest of his teammates, but certainly not willpower. Good Washington teams have always had a guard possessing a pure, unfiltered will to excel, whether it be Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson or Will Conroy - or later, Isaiah Thomas, Quincy Pondexter or Justin Dentmon.

The forgettable 2006 and 2007 UW teams lacked that player - and they stunk. Washington's current guards are certainly talented enough, but maybe Gaddy, Wilcox, and Suggs don't possess that killer quality about them. Maybe that player is Andrews, but that's an awful lot of pressure to put on a banged-up freshman. Lord knows he's fearless enough and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he has that inner drive to win in him.

Here's some good news: If all goes to plan, the Huskies will take the floor Thursday evening a whole team for the first time all year, which means we will finally get to see what this group is truly capable of collectively. The early returns on the Pac-12 this season show an improved conference buoyed by 5th-ranked Arizona. After the Wildcats, there's no obvious favorite. Pretty much everyone - even lowly Arizona State - could emerge from non-conference play with mostly untarnished resumes. The conference has done a much better job winning the games they should win - except for Washington and UCLA, that is. It also means that the conference championship is wide open and there for the taking. Even the exceptionally talented 'Cats have weak spots.

Romar's teams always seem to have a habit of starting slowly but improving dramatically over the course of the season. This year's team has the potential to follow the same development path.

Given all of the challenges the Huskies have had to overcome they could have folded up shop and mailed in the season. But they haven't yet, even if it appears like they've come close. They've stared adversity in the face and should be a better team for it. Maybe.

The warts are obvious. They're a poor defensive team and physically soft. They're also uncharacteristically ineffective in transition and mediocre rebounders - statements rarely heard when describing previous Washington teams under Romar's watch. Whether those flaws prove too glaring to overcome remains to be seen.

But the fan looking at a glass-half-filled can point to the fact that the Huskies still have a chance to earn a signature win against Connecticut December 29th to pad a resume in need of a boost. Washington's RPI presently sits at 89 - not nearly good enough to secure them an NCAA Tournament appearance, but not so bad that it disqualifies them from the conversation if they can rediscover their competitiveness. With upcoming games against Connecticut (15), Arizona (8) and Colorado (2), the Huskies will get their chances to reclaim their resume. But they've got to flip the switch now because they've already wasted their margin for error.

So this is it Husky fans; it's time for the Dawgs to put on their big boy pants and quit playing like puppies. It's time for them to venture out of their comfort zone to see what they are truly capable of.


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