After passing the mid-point of conference play, UW is longer the Pac-12's best kept secret. They’re a good ball club. Lorenzo Romar has emerged as a candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year - and rightfully so. Andrew Andrews is a front-runner for conference Player of the Year and Dejounte Murray is a leading candidate to win conference Freshman of the Year honors. Those awards are not associated with irrelevant teams.
For the first time since 2012 the University of Washington Men’s Basketball team matters again. But they’re not there yet.
“When you’re climbing up the mountain, as we are, there comes that defining moment where you’re over the hump and now you gotta sustain it — and I don’t feel like we’ve gotten there yet,” Romar said after the 77-72 loss to the No. 23-ranked Wildcats. “We’re climbing hard, and we’re gaining momentum, but we haven’t gotten over that hump.”
Washington was the surprise of the conference during the first half of conference play despite relinquishing their claim to first place a week and a half ago versus USC. The loss did little to diminish the specter of Pac-12 competitiveness, however, as they showed considerable meddle four days later in a come-from-behind victory at home against Arizona State.
The Huskies have shredded the pre-season press prediction that had them finishing 11th in the conference. They've succeeded using an unflinching commitment to the learning process, stomaching the inevitable mistakes of youth. Yet here they sit, 7-4 in conference play with less than a month remaining in the regular season.
They've overcome seemingly insurmountable deficits, historic foul trouble and a league that's as competitive and balanced as any in recent memory. And they are doing it using some serious on-the-job training, even mixing in some zone with their now-standard switching defense, against Arizona.
“As this team begins to mature, maybe we can add some more things here,” Romar said. “We talked about the balance of moving on and being patient. We don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. I think we’ve made strides recently.”
Critics tend to gloss over the challenges the Huskies have faced after a total roster reboot heading into the season. One of the Huskies’ chief detractors - former Pac-12 head coach Kevin O'Neill - would have you believe that Washington’s success is little more than dumb luck. He couldn’t be more wrong. Luck doesn't explain the Huskies unlikely 3-2 league road record, not in a conference projected to send as many as eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. Luck doesn't sweep UCLA, or win multiple overtime games with several key players disqualified due to foul trouble.
“Each day is a new day,” Romar said Monday. “I think the stakes were high against Arizona and I think our guys did really well. We left about 10 points out there with bad shots and turnovers. We had them stopped sometimes and bailed them out with fouls. But I thought our guys did well. We didn’t win but we approached it the right way. I have no reason to believe we’ll step back when facing high stakes.”
This isn’t a team built to dominate opponents; not yet, at any rate. During conference play, five of their seven wins have been decided by four points or less, and that doesn’t include the overtime victory over the Sun Devils last week.
The Huskies make opponents look undisciplined and careless because that's precisely what Lorenzo Romar's system is designed to do. They block shots, disrupt passing lanes with deflections, earn steals and dominate the glass. The Huskies look like they're playing at the edge of control by design.
To O'Neill, who was drummed out of USC after posting a 45-61 record over four years, it's no wonder the Huskies’ success doesn’t compute. He has no clue what winning Pac-12 basketball looks like.
“We take teams out of their offenses and cause problems for them,” said freshman wing Matisse Thybulle. “I think that if we play aggressive and play together we can get them out of what we’re trying to do.”
“It’s like anything else,” added Romar. “If we play a packed defense and there are breakdowns, then there are flaws in switching. If that defense is executed flawlessly the result is better. If we were playing zone or man, breakdowns cause you to be ineffective. I think our breakdowns are diminishing, though. I think we played as good a defense against Arizona as we’ve played this year.”
No matter how badly Husky fans wish the maturation process would speed up, Washington will remain the Cardiac Kids of the Pac-12 for the duration of the season. They entered the year as the fifth youngest team in all of NCAA Division-1 Basketball. Obviously that won’t be the case until next year. The front court isn’t equipped to withstand bigger front courts like Arizona or Utah - even if they aren’t fouling at a historic rate for a change.
Regardless, and perhaps most encouragingly for Husky fans, the team continues to improve, and they're doing it in unconventional ways. During Washington’s road victory over UCLA, neither of their two best players - Andrews and Baby Boy Murray - had particularly good games. Thybulle, Marquese Chriss and Malik Dime had all fouled out. Yet Washington persevered thanks in no small measure to the heroic play of Noah Dickerson, who was suffering from a painful ankle injury, and clutch play by several of UW's reserves; notably Dominic Green, David Crisp and Donaven Dorsey.
Against Arizona State it was Murray that played the part of the savior, turning in one of the better performances by a freshman in the history of the program with 34 points and 11 rebounds in the overtime victory. Against Arizona, Thybulle and Chriss rose to the challenge in a losing effort.
Washington's success is often attributed to their immense athleticism, and that's certainly a key component to their success. But even that takes a team only so far. They're not a very good shooting team, and they're a poor defensive rebounding team. So how can they possibly be winning at such a high clip?
The answer is in chemistry. “I think it has been good. Whatever reason, no matter where they are from, all these guys fit together,” said Romar.
“We just have to trust our defense and trust our principles,” added Thybulle. “We are getting better at trusting our teammates to be in the right spot so we can go and make plays and stop players.”
Rare is the group that buys in to the team concept as wholeheartedly as Washington’s players have. It's often observed that you can't win with youth in the NCAA, that even the master of the ‘one and done’ era - John Calipari and his Kentucky juggernaut - can't build a winner consistently because it's so difficult to get blue-chip youngsters to buy in the whole way.
Make no mistake; the pups have bought in. And it’s not because of the way they light up the scoreboard or throw down eye-popping alley-oop dunks, but by their unselfishness and commitment to team basketball. They're not perfect, but they want to be, and that's more than you can say for most teams in the Pac-12, experienced or not. When you look beyond the sensational talent of Andrews, Murray and Chriss, you still see a roster of talented players working to improve every single day.
Washington may have lost a heartbreaker to Arizona, but the loss does little to dim their NCAA Tournament prospects. If anything, the game showed quite clearly how far UW has come in a short amount of time, especially given their 99-67 loss to the ‘Cats in the desert less than a month ago.
They belong in the conference title conversation. This is a team that can win a game or two in March.
But the Huskies have work to do first, starting with their toughest road trip in the Pac-12 this season; Utah and lottery bound seven-footer Jakob Poeltl on Wednesday, followed by Colorado Saturday morning.
“They’re two good teams,” said Romar. “I don’t know if they’ve lost more than two or three games at home this year.”
“I think we all have the same mentality when it comes to losing,” Thybulle added. “It hurts. We come out hungry after loses because we don’t want to feel that again. We’re hungry to get these next two.”