For the road weary Dawgs, the next 30 days afford them an opportunity to take a breath after a whirlwind November that saw them criss-cross the globe in the span of two weeks. And the coaches get a chance to digest the team's achievements, better understand its shortcomings, and address problem areas that need to be fixed.
There was a reason the Huskies were picked 11th in the pre-season Pac-12 polls, even if now that pick appears a bit low. Clearly Washington is a better team than that, but the logic seemed sound at the time. Winning with youth is tricky business, as we saw Sunday against Cal State-Fullerton. Their play Sunday was a microcosm of the challenges the coaching staff faces this season - all the good, all the bad, and everything in between - playing out in real time.
The Huskies opened the game listless and flat, the trademark energy that had propelled them the first six games nowhere to be seen. They paid a heavy price in the opening minutes, down double digits at one point before summoning their energy and stepping on the gas.
“Fullerton had us on our heals with their quickness,” said Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar afterward. “I thought we adjusted. We guarded better. Matisse (Thybulle), Dejounte (Murray), Malik (Dime), and Andrew (Andrews) got our defense going and made a difference.”
He was being nice.
Washington has yet to dial up a consistent 40 minutes of effort this season. That isn’t all that unusual where young teams are concerned, but the drop off in effectiveness with this group has been especially glaring when they aren’t playing with maximum effort. Ready or not, the young pups have been thrown to the D1 wolves. Opponents are bigger and faster than anyone most of the roster has ever faced, and the Dawgs are quickly figuring out that it takes more than just showing up to carve out success at this level.
“You use the word swagger; I think we have that,” Romar said, referring to his team's on-court demeanor, but he added a caution. “I hope we don’t have to learn any more lessons about that being a detriment. Sometimes we walk on the floor like it will all go our way. I thought this was similar to the game against Charlotte where we got down and defended and won. I hope we can learn from these.”
Against Fullerton, they coughed up almost as many turnovers (5) in the first four minutes as they scored points (6) heading into the first media timeout. At times their fundamentals were less than sterling.
That’s not an indictment on UW’s coaching staff or players. Up until now, most of them have never known any better. Young players are notoriously underprepared for college basketball these days. In many cases they are given free reign with their high school and AAU teams to do as they please, with little regard for the less exciting – yet absolutely essential - aspects of the game. They can score and jump and shoot, to be sure, but when it comes to the fundamentals of the game - boxing out, defending with their legs rather than with their hands (reaching in), and losing sight of their man on defense - the pups leave a lot to be desired.
Athleticism usually makes things worse, rather than better, since elite high school athletes have become accustomed to using their quickness, length or bounce to compensate for lack of fundamental skill.
With that said, they’ve got a long way to go on the defensive end.
“We’re not where we want to be,” said Romar, frankly. “We understand, but it hasn’t become a habit yet. We’ll be pleased when that happens. We have made progress about knowing what to do, we just need to react on the fly better.”
It’s something that comes with experience.
Another common refrain from observers during the first seven games has been the high number of turnovers. Washington is turning over the ball 16 times a game, and that number doesn’t seem to be improving. Yet Romar doesn’t seem to be overly concerned.
“Hopefully when you look at our number of possessions per game it’s different than others,” said Romar, giving the team's turnovers a pass, but not a complete one. “There are deliberate teams that possess it 60-65 times a game. We have it 80-85 possessions per game so we might turn it over more.
“Our number is 13. We try to keep it under 13 turnovers per game.”
The Husky coaching staff is weaving a careful balance when it comes to turnovers. He has always been a 'let your thoroughbreds run' kind of coach, careful not to neuter his best playmakers by taking their instincts away from them. During this learning period, Romar is letting the freshmen play without burdening them with fear.
However, at some point soon that’s going to have to change. In high school, possessions mattered little, or at least mattered less than they should. There’s always another opportunity. That changes in college, and once conference play rolls around, every possession becomes important. The game tightens up, and that’s something the Huskies are going to learn.
And then there’s the foul situation. Washington’s front court players are seemingly in foul trouble minutes into every game. In some cases, the culprit is the new universally-panned foul rules. Yet again, Romar is erring on the side of on-the-job training. He could easily switch to a 2-3 zone to preserve his front court, but that hasn’t been his strategy. It seems he’d rather have them learn the proper skills to defend properly for his system, in spite of the obvious risks. It's a short term pain that should pay long-term dividends.
At the quarter-mark of the season, there’s plenty to love about this years’ Huskies. Their raw athleticism and youthful energy are a joy to watch. They play with unbridled passion, and clearly enjoy playing together, which isn’t something you could say the last few years. Other than the lack of beef in the post, the roster is balanced and they seem to complement each other well. As a team, they’ve bought into what Romar and his staff are selling. The rotation is slowly falling into place. Indications point to an eight-man rotation. Right now that would mean the starters - Andrews, Murray, Thybulle, Marquese Chriss, and Noah Dickerson - plus Dime, David Crisp and either Donaven Dorsey or Dominic Green coming off the bench.
December is Romar's chance to fine tune and tinker while the team builds chemistry, gains confidence and learns.
The Dawgs face their next high major test at home Tuesday night at 8pm against Texas Christian, and the Horned Frogs are a tougher opponent than their 4-3 record suggests. We’ll see how much they've learned from the lessons given in their 18-point win Sunday over the Titans.