Beach's Bits: Chance to Shine in The Bahamas for Husky Hoops

Montlake is buzzing, and the Washington Huskies are unexpectedly faced with the chance to earn multiple signature wins as one of the West’s biggest early season surprises, after the opening the season undefeated in impressive fashion.

But now comes the true test, when the Huskies square off against rival Gonzaga 9 am Wednesday morning in the first action of the Battle 4 Atlantis in The Bahamas. By the end of this week, we’ll know whether Washington’s eye-opening start is indeed for real.

The Huskies opened the season in stunning fashion, overwhelming a veteran Texas squad they had no business beating. They returned home energized to pummel Mount St Mary’s and Pennsylvania, where they scored over 100 points in back-to-back games for the first time in five years. Washington's stellar start is surprising, not just because of their youth (they’re tied for the fifth youngest team in the country) but because of the way they’re winning. The Dawgs lead the nation in rebounding, are second on offensive rebounding, fourth in field goal percentage defense and blocked shots. Despite the small sample size, those are encouraging statistics, not just because of the lofty numbers but because they’re totally aligned with the program's core principles.

The last couple of seasons, Washington has been a slow starting team, but this year has been a different story as the Huskies have built sizeable leads to open the last two games - again, primarily due to the team's energy and aggressiveness on the defensive end.

But now things get serious, and all the momentum in the world isn’t worth squat if they don’t show up in The Bahamas. In many ways, it’ll be a banner moment for the program when they tip off Wednesday morning against the Zags.  Basketball fans state-wide have been chomping at the bit for a renewal of the UW-Gonzaga rivalry which returns after a nine-year layoff, but it also features a laundry list of potential opponents in some of college basketball's highest profile programs; Michigan, Syracuse, Connecticut, Texas, Texas A&M and Charlotte.

And where once a loss against the Zags seemed like a foregone conclusion, the conversation has suddenly changed.

The Zags are built completely different to Washington, boasting arguably the top front court in the nation, with 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski, 6-foot-11 forward Damontis Sabonis and 6-foot-10 pre-season All-American Kyle WIltjer - all of whom are likely to be selected in the NBA draft after the season.

Despite an icy cold start to the the season, Wiltjer remains one of the top shooters in the country. Yet Washington would appear to be well-equipped to defend against Wiltjer’s immense talent, thanks to an edge in athleticism and length on the wing between Marquese Chriss and Matisse Thybulle.  It’s Sabonis that may prove to be the biggest challenge. The hulking sophomore is considered to be one of the toughest players in the country, and there is little the Huskies can do to keep him out of the paint. Gonzaga initiates its offense with Sabonis setting up at the left elbow, where he initiates a high screen and roll, than powers through defenders where he’s a powerful finisher.  In two-and-a-half games so far, no opponent has had any luck stopping him, and that’s not likely to change with UW.

But though the Zags engineered big blowouts in convincing wins over Northern Arizona and mutual opponent Mount St Marys (who they flattened 101-56) they’re vulnerable. The Zags are adjusting to life two of the most productive guards in the program's history in Gary Bell, Jr. and Kevin Pangos, who graduated after last season, and the transition hasn’t been easy.  The players that replaced them - Josh Perkins and Silas Melson - are undeniably talented, but they’re also inexperienced and shouldering a heavy load. The team's backcourt rotation, which also includes veteran Kyle Draginis, freshmen Bryan Alberts and transfer senior Eric McClellan, are adjusting to life as key members of the rotation -  with mixed results thus far.

That’s Washington’s edge - they’re playing them at the right time (besides March, which is the best time to play Gonzaga, but that's a story for another day).

By now, it's become obvious that the Huskies boast an extraordinarily athletic team. Gonzaga has never been a program known for its attention to the defensive end, and there’s little to suggest that will change this season. Long story short, they don’t have a defender who can stay in front of the Huskies when they’re on the attack. It starts with Andrew Andrews, who has made a living slashing through the paint and initiating contact. The same holds true to a lesser extent for Dejounte Murray and David Crisp, though we’ve seen just a glimpse of their considerable capabilities. The Zags don’t contest shots in the paint either, with only four blocked shots in two games against vastly inferior opponents. The Huskies, meanwhile, have 25 team blocks in three games. Against Mount St Mary’s Saturday, Gonzaga swatted just one shot, compared to the Huskies' seven blocks against the same opponent last week.  The Huskies will almost certainly go right at the Zags' passive front court defense trying to lure them into foul trouble. Though the Zags tower over the Huskies with their super-sized front court, the Huskies hold a significant edge in athleticism and mobility.  

Washington has been far from perfect.  The giant margin of victory the last two games has masked many of their challenges. They’re doing a dismal job of taking care of the ball the first three games, and If they turn the ball over 20 times against Gonzaga, the Zags may run them out of the building. And while the Huskies may hold the fifth-best three-point field goal percentage defense in the country, it hasn’t been for a lack of open opportunities.  The other team is just not making them.  At times, the Huskies' inconsistently-focused defense has suffered through some ugly stretches. Coming out of the gate, Washington has suffocated opponents during the opening frame, using their extraordinary length and quickness to deflect passes for easy buckets at the other end. It hasn’t lasted, but it’s tough to say that the Huskies' slow or lazy defensive rotations on the perimeter are a product of a lack of focus, or a by-product of the blowout nature of their games. Neither will fly against Gonzaga. The Zags are shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc as a team, and that’s with Wiltjer - one of the nation's best shooters - yet to to find his range.

The true test will come in the team's execution in the second half if the game is close. Washington withstood a late run by the Texas Longhorns thanks to Texas’s misfiring offense the last two minutes of the game, timely Washington rebounding and clutch free throw shooting at the end of the game. It’s Unlikely Gonzaga will suffer the same late-game scoring woes as the Longhorns did.

But even if the Huskies lose, they have a golden opportunity over the Thanksgiving break to further pad their resume with high profile opponents. In the second round, the Huskies will face Texas A&M or have a rematch against Texas.

Washington's spectacular start has given its win-starved fan base something to cheer about for the first time in a while, but they’re going to find out who they really are this week. It’s an exciting time for a UW basketball program that appears to be well ahead of schedule with its young roster. Two weeks ago, two or more wins in The Bahamas seemed like a longshot. Now, anything less than that would be a disappointment. Five years ago, Washington faced a similar opportunity in the national spotlight in Maui, with winnable games against Kentucky and Michigan State - but ended up falling short.

This is their opportunity for redemption, their chance for a return to relevance far sooner than anyone had predicted.


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