Beach's Bits: SDSU

It’s been a while since the Huskies have beaten a top-25 non-conference opponent. In a game remembered more for the gruesome leg injury to star guard Derrick Roland than the actual victory, Washington beat then No. 19 Texas A&M on December 22nd 2010. That was the last time. San Diego State spanked UW in San Diego last season 70-63, but the Huskies revenged that game in fine fashion Sunday night.

They routed the 13th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs 49-36 in a statement-making defensive win.

It may not have been pretty, but the Dawgs ripped a page straight out of the Seattle Seahawks' playbook, locking down the offensively challenged Aztecs with suffocating defensive energy. Washington’s unrelenting efforts resulted in a dismal 20 percent shooting night for SDSU - a team of long, athletic wings and tall forwards who couldn’t hit an outside jumper thanks to the constant presence of Washington’s defenders.

“I thought our guys defended with a lot of confidence and purpose,” said a clearly pleased Lorenzo Romar after the game. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”

Shawn Kemp, Jr. set the tone early, emphatically swatting away SDSU’s first field goal attempt. That play served as a preview of what was to come over the next 40 minutes. The Huskies further confounded the cold-starting Aztecs by switching to a 2-3 zone just two minutes into the game and San Diego State didn’t manage to score a field goal for nearly the first six minutes. Washington mixed in zone continually throughout the evening, and the strategy worked. The Huskies contested every shot, rarely yielding San Diego State any open looks. Thanks to Robert Upshaw, there weren’t many shots to be found in the paint either. The Huskies nearly held the Aztecs to single digit made field goals until a couple of garbage time buckets artificially narrowed the gap.

The low scoring affair played out as most expected – meaning it wasn't pretty. Both teams have held opponents to some miserly field goal percentages during the first quarter of the season. Before the game, college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy ranked the Aztecs fourth in defensive efficiency nationally, while the Huskies held opponents to just 35 percent shooting from the floor. Not surprisingly, the game played out just like the numbers suggested.

This team's identity is on the defensive end. Robert Upshaw and his 7-foot-4 wingspan may be the lightning rod, but Mike Anderson is UW's unsung hero, doing the dirty work that rarely registers in the box score. The rest of the team has improved immensely, including co-captains Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. They have all clearly embraced Romar’s defensive philosophy. When asked about what they think the team's identity is, they all said 'defense' without having to be prompted. They know what sets them apart.

 “If we are going to be successful at all it’s going to be on the defensive end,” Romar said post-game. “We explain that every year but some teams grasp it more than others. Some teams embrace it more than others. This team has embraced it.”

The undefeated record, despite an offense that hasn’t fully clicked, is evidence that the team has bought in. In the paint, Upshaw, the nation's leading shot blocker, swatted another four shots on the evening, denying the Aztecs – who are poor outside shooting team to begin with - anything in the paint. And that doesn’t factor the number of shots he altered without box score credit.

“It makes it a lot easier knowing we have a safety net back there,” said Nigel Williams-Goss afterward regarding Upshaw and his defensive presence. “We try not to rely on it because we feel like it might put him in foul trouble, so we try to keep our guy in front of us , but having him back there makes it easier.”

Even when Upshaw wasn’t in the game, Washington swarmed to the ball, scratching and clawing at the overwhelmed Aztec ball handlers. They’re playing team defense for a change. We haven’t seen that in a while.

The 7-0 Huskies are a different team than the untested 6-0 version. Washington passed this early test with flying colors, routing a top-20 team that came into the game with quality wins over Utah, BYU and Pittsburgh. In a side by side comparison, the Huskies flattened a team that who nearly beat No. 3 Arizona in the championship game of the Maui Invitational.

Better still, the way Washington is winning is sustainable because it’s grounded in defensive principles. Offensively, the Huskies are streaky, still finding their way despite lacking a prototypical scorer or shooter in the vein of C.J. Wilcox, Terrence Ross, or Quincy Pondexter to carry them through rough patches. But when they’re defending the way they did Saturday, it doesn’t matter how poorly they shoot.

“We want to run, and there are going to be games like this where it’s going to be slowed down,” Romar said. “Defense is what can sustain you. I think that’s another valuable lesson for our guys tonight, to know that even when you’re playing and the ball’s not going in the basket for you, if you defend you still give yourself a chance to be successful.”

Their defense is good enough to keep them in games. Furthermore, when they play unselfishly, share the ball and hit shots as they’ve done in spurts this season, they look more and more like a team built to contend for a conference title, rather than for a fringe NCAA Tournament bid.

Whether the team wanted to admit it or not, the San Diego State game was one that had been circled on their calendar since before the season; the first true test. That they passed the test, and did so emphatically, meant a vault to 17th Monday in the AP Top-25 poll, while significantly boosting their all-important RPI to 34 (San Diego State entered the game with an RPI of 19). Unlike so many empty preseason polls, they’ve earned whatever plaudits come their way due to their play.

Romar summed it up perfectly: “We’ve had two years of being mediocre and guys don’t want to be mediocre anymore.”


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