Beach's Bits

While the seniors struggle, Andrew Andrews' inspired play in a breakthrough performance against ASU was a nod to the great Husky guards of the past. During a fading season season like the one Washington fans are enduring now, it's standard practice to pick apart both coaches and players as fans and media alike vent frustration while trying to understand where things went wrong.

With this particular team you don't have to look very hard because up to this point, the veteran backcourt has mostly been a disappointment. This was supposed to be the season that demonstrated the advantage of having a fourth-year starter at point guard and two top-notch, experienced sharpshooters bombing away from the wing. That was my theory at any rate, bolstered by a similar perspective from the coaching staff.

Boy was I ever wrong.  That prediction of course was predicated on a significant leap in production from senior Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs, which seemed realistic giving their performances in Europe during the summer.  I simply couldn't fathom a Husky back court playing the way they have. I don't think anyone considered they would lose five games at home before the mid point of conference play.  That's not Husky Basketball.

Instead the entire program is being called into question. For the first time in the Lorenzo Romar era since 2003, this doesn't look anything like the kind of Husky Basketball have come to know and love.  Even during the two down years that followed UW's second Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2006, there was hope in the form of talented freshmen classes and fans were genuinely excited about the future in spite of the current product. But the coaching staff's decision to abandon the 2012 recruiting class didn't give fans that outlet, and that turned out to be a grievous error on their behalf.

Under Romar, there has always been clear way to differentiate successful Husky teams from bad ones: It's all about the back court.

The great Husky teams under Romar have all had one thing in common - fabulous point guard play. The rise of Washington basketball coincided with the arrival of three stellar Seattle area prep stars - Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Brandon Roy. All three of were flawed in one way or another, which meant they were largely overlooked in recruiting circles.  Nate was too small; Conroy was unpolished and an inconsistent shooter; Roy was too passive and lacked explosive athleticism. That's what the so-called "experts" believed at the time, at any rate.

Obviously nothing could have been further from the truth. Those three players, along with a strong supporting cast, ushered in a new era of UW Basketball relevance and helped ease the pain of a then-floundering football program.

Above all else, those three players were fiercely competitive and overcame perceived flaws because their will to win wouldn't let them fail.  Bolstered by a rabid student fan base which became the Dawgpack, the local stars developed a synergy with their fans that turned Hec Ed into one of the country's strongest home court advantages.

After their departure, the Huskies entered a brief rebuilding mode despite a top-five recruiting class that included blue chip one-and-done center Spencer Hawes and the presence of future Husky legend Jon Brockman - who channeled the competitive fire of his predecessors at the power forward position and possessed the heart of a lion. Even with players like that, the missing ingredient was obvious during their brief dip - a dynamic back court leader that relentlessly pressured opponents on both ends of the floor.

That deficiency was partially addressed a year later with the arrival of little known point guard Venoy Overton from Franklin High School, but it wasn't until another pint sized titan showed up that the Huskies recovered their missing swagger.  

Hailing from Curtis High School in University Place by way of a prep school stint back east, Isaiah Thomas took the long cut to landing at Washington. Initially labeled as a talented but selfish volume shooter, Thomas quickly silenced even his most ardent critics with his unquenchable competitiveness. Thomas oozed confidence by way of a consistent Shaquille O'Neal-sized chip on his shoulder, leading his team to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet Sixteen game, during his three year stay at Washington.  

Last season, it was maligned Garfield High phenom Tony Wroten that replaced Thomas as the Huskies' lead guard. Like most freshmen, Wroten's play was marked by inconsistency but he still managed to imitate many of the traits that made Washington's other guards so successful. Coupled with fellow future first-round draft pick Terrence Ross, Romar and the Huskies were rewarded with another conference championship.

As Husky fans bristle with frustration over some generally uninspired play by this year's team, the program's reliance on a high octane point guard has become painfully apparent.  Those who point the finger at senior Abdul Gaddy have a good argument, but it isn't necessarily all on him.  Gaddy's struggles highlight the importance of matching the right player with the right program and prove a cautionary tale for those who get caught up in recruiting status as a future barometer for success.  

When the former McDonald's All American from Tacoma's Bellermine Prep signed with UW, he shared little resemblance with any Husky guards before him.  After de-committing from Arizona twice Gaddy chose Washington, in spite of the fact that he lacked the explosive traits that made past UW guards so successful. He wasn't fiery or demonstrative on the floor, nor overly quick, and he didn't project as a high level defender.

Ideal fit or not, Romar would have been lambasted for passing on such a highly touted recruit.  

The 2009 Evergreen State recruiting class was a good one. Besides Gaddy it yielded Avery Bradley, who chose Texas, as well as Franklin point guard and current Louisville star Peyton Siva. They never had a shot at Bradley - who grew up Texas - but in retrospect one has to wonder if the Huskies wouldn't have been better served if they had pursued Siva harder.  Physically speaking, Siva was a perfect fit for Washington; a blazing quick, unpredictable charismatic floor leader - cut from a similar cloth as Robinson and Thomas as undersized dynamos.  His Louisville career has been marked by inconsistency and injury but you can't help but think he would have made a great Husky.  

This isn't meant to disparage Gaddy at all. By all accounts Gaddy is a wonderful student-athlete and great ambassador for the University of Washington. The same can be said of senior Suggs, who is clearly talented but too passive physically to compete at the level we're accustomed to seeing great Husky guards perform.  Again, tremendous student-athletes who have always been a credit to the program off the court, but the physical demands Washington puts on its guards are enormous and certainly not for everyone. It simply underscores the importance of picking the right player for the system.

Watching uber-talented Arizona State freshman Jahii Carson shred the Huskies Saturday night made me stop and consider whether Washington's transition toward bigger guards was really the right move. Carson - a player heavily recruited by Washington and one they probably could have landed - shares many of the traits that made Nate the Great and IT such uniquely talented players.

Even C.J. Wilcox, who is a brilliant talent, hasn't had the "A HA!" moment or stretch of monumental play that has propelled previous Husky guards into permanent Husky lore. He possesses all of the tools, minus the larger than life personality, but it remains to be seen if he will take the final step into greatness before his time in Montlake is done.

Maybe thats why Andrew Andrews' 20-point breakout in their win over the Sun Devils was so heartening for fans searching to connect with a team that, to this point in the season, resembles Washington Basketball in name only.

Washington's 2006 class was, from a rankings perspective, the high water recruiting mark of the Romar era.  Yet it was a total disappointment, yielding just one player - Quincy Pondexter - to leave a permanent stamp on the program.   Meanwhile, the following recruiting class, which included Overton, Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, had a much bigger overall impact despite lacking the star power of the previous class.

In light of UW's struggles this season, Romar appears to have rectified his recent recruiting misfires. Andrews was a giant step forward (or backward in terms of channeling the program's rich backcourt history). For 2013, Romar has received commitments from three players holding solid, but unspectacular national recruiting rankings, though their reputations are rising fast.  The difference this time, is that Nigel Williams-Goss, Darin Johnson and most recently, Jahmel Taylor, seem to fit the well established blueprint of successful Husky guards of the past.  All three are rugged and physical and intensely competitive playmakers who thrive in transition.  Neither Williams-Goss nor Taylor possess elite athleticism but instead are hard-nosed, fearless penetrators and top-notch defenders.

The best Washington guards have been unpredictable, fearless and brash.  They thrived at a chaotic, up-tempo pace; an environment they dictate by their suffocating defensive pressure. They would crash the glass and defend like their lives depended on it. They're intimidating, in-your-face and feed off the energy generated by one of college basketball's top fan bases.  And they're cold blooded killers.  That's what made Washington guards special and its the reason so many of them end up in the NBA.

At Washington, the guards must be crazy.


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