Beach's Bits - UW Getting Defensive

SEATTLE - A couple of weeks ago, the Husky basketball season was over. Or at least it felt that way. Washington's defense was bad during non-conference play. Painfully awful, actually. But two weeks into conference play, the Huskies season is suddenly alive and kicking, and they have their reinvigorated defense to thank for it.

"I thought this was a really good defensive performance by us, despite the ball screens in the second half," said Husky Head Coach Lorenzo Romar during his post game press conference Wednesday night. "We forced several shot clock violations. I thought we were cutting off the lanes in the first half. I thought we did an excellent job."

Like most people, I turned on the Arizona State game last Thursday under no illusions that the Huskies would be quickly wiped off the floor by the Sun Devils; a talented, borderline top-25 team playing on their home court.

But much to the surprise of just about everyone paying attention, the Huskies smothered Arizona State and future NBA first rounder Jahii Carson. In fact, the Huskies smothered ASU inside and out, and held them to just 39 percent from the field.

Two days later against Arizona, the Huskies held top ranked Arizona to just 42 percent from the field in tightly contested loss.

To put that in perspective, statistically speaking, Washington is currently pulling up the rear in the conference, allowing opponents to shoot 48.4 percent from the floor. That's nearly five percent worse than Oregon State, the next closest Pac-12 team.

"It was happening before these three games; it just wasn't fully developed yet," responded Romar when asked about the Huskies dramatic improvements defensively. "It was coming. Bits and pieces…we were seeing that we were improving defensively. We just hadn't put it together. Again, Desmond Simmons took two shots, scored two points - but his presence defensively, we didn't have that before. His presence defensively helps us. That's another body out there that knows what we're doing. That helps us, to have him come in there when Perris (Blackwell)…Shawn (Kemp) is a little healthier now. Those things help us defensively also.

"But all-in-all, we're just understanding our defensive schemes."

Returning home, the Huskies turned their attention to a streaking Utah team coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss to No. 10 Oregon. Averaging 85.5 points per game, the Utes entered the game leading the conference in field goal percentage, shooting over 53 percent a game. No matter, the Huskies picked up right where they left off in Arizona, holding the Utes to a hard-earned 41 percent from the floor.

So what changed? That's tough to say, but apparently the holiday break allowed the team time to do some serious soul searching, faced with the prospect of another season of irrelevance in the Pac-12. Whatever it was that triggered their renewed commitment on the defense end, it worked. Washington's guards are staying in front of their man for a change. That alone is cause for celebration, because without a shot blocker anchoring the middle, opposing guards had been carving up the Huskies like a meat slicer at the Carnegie Deli.

They are contesting shots too. During non conference play, Washington's opponents shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. But now? Through three conference games, opponents have connected on just 5 of 38 attempts from three, or a miserly 14 percent. That currently leads the Pac-12 in three point defense.

"I think we've been contesting shots," Romar said when asked about their remarkable three point percentage turn-around. "You know there's one thing that if you play really good defense teams feel you. If you're where you need to be and you're contesting most shots, when they finally do get an open one sometimes they don't hit those because you've been there for so long and they haven't been able to get into a rhythm yet. I don't think we allowed them to get into a rhythm where they could get those wide-open threes. They were 0-9 in the first half and they can make threes. They can certainly shoot the three-ball, but our guys are doing a good job in guarding that three-point line."

Washington's constant defensive switching on the perimeter has been crisp and fluid, and they're not getting burned in transition nearly as often as they were in December.

"I think our guys have bought into the defense," Romar said, matter-of-factly. " I think our guys are now enjoying playing defense because we've taken ownership now. It's become fun for our guys to play it. I think that's why there's a little more intensity there. If you're confused and not quite sure, thinking handcuffs you sometimes. It makes you indecisive and takes away your initiative."  

Before anyone gets too excited, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the Huskies are suddenly back in the upper echelon of the conference. They've still got a long way to go to recover from ugly losses to UC Irvine and Boston College before they're a viable candidate to earn an NCAA Tournament invitation.

As we've seen this repeatedly in the conference this week, no win is guaranteed in the Pac-12 - not even Arizona. But Washington has stumbled onto a winning formula of late, and it's a sustainable one as long as their focus doesn't falter. Overlooking a team like Oregon State or Wazzu will bring a quick end to whatever post-season aspirations the Huskies hold.

Great Husky teams have always been built on a defense-first philosophy, but it's been far too long since we've seen it on the court. While this year's team may have too many warts to compare to Romar's three Sweet Sixteen teams, the Huskies have managed to string together three of their best defensive performances since Isaiah Thomas graduated.

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