Versatility is the key

ALBUQUERQUE - A different player can hurt you on any day of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, and when it comes to Thursday's Sweet Sixteen matchup between Louisville and Washington in Albuquerque, N.M., this notion rings especially true. When it comes to these two high-octane offenses, neither head coach can game-plan against just one or two players.

Six Louisville Cardinals have either lead their team or tied for the team lead in scoring this year, while the Huskies boast seven scoring leaders. The Cardinals also boast four players on their team that have already scored over one-thousand points in their careers (Francisco Garcia, Larry O'Bannon, Taquan Dean, Ellis Myles), while the Huskies counter with three of their all-time shooters from behind the arc (Nate Robinson, Tre Simmons and Will Conroy). It's this kind of versatility that will cause significant hair-loss in even the best coaches in the country.

"They have two, maybe three great leaders in Garcia, O'Bannon and Dean and any one of them can be the leading scorer or lead them to victory," said Washington forward Bobby Jones. "That's one of the strengths of our team too. We have five weapons on the court at all times, and if you forget about one they can make you pay. Five or six guys could be the leading scorer on any one night. That's a tough thing to scout for and something we've got going for us.

"We just want to make it as difficult as possible for them to get started. It all depends on our defensive pressure and getting teams out of their element and make them do things they aren't used to doing. The toughest thing to do in a tournament is play a team you aren't used to playing. It might take a whole game to get used to their style."

Rick Pitino has scouted Washington and sees his own team in the mirror. "They are like us - they shoot the ball well and they are one of the top rebounding teams in the Pac-10," said the Louisville Head Coach. "They are clearly an explosive offensive basketball team that you can't key on one person. If you do, two of three other gys burn you, so you have to play great team defense. So it's not just one concern, it's about seven nor eight major concerns for us, and we have got to be ready for all of those."

Pitino went on to say that a game in the 70's would probably be the right amount of points for a Cardinal victory, and by looking at the Cardinals' post-season record you can see why; in their five conference and NCAA tournament games, three of them have been in the 70's. "We all know we play better when we get to the 80's and 90's," added UW senior guard Will Conroy. "If the game is scored in the 50's and 60's, it definitely plays more into Louisville's hands."

When the Huskies have reached the 90-point plateau, their record is an unblemished 13-0. But don't sell the Cardinals short when they put up big numbers. They are 9-0 when going for 90-plus.

"We have a team that's not really into who gets credit," said Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar. "It's a team in every sense of the world. Teams can't key on just one or two guys. Also the ability to use our quickness to pressure teams has helped us quite a bit. Our defense generates a lot of that offense."

Romar, who is 5-1 against Louisville and 2-0 lifetime against Pitino, but he doesn't feel that his impressive record is something that should be over-analyzed. "Nothing surprises me what Coach Pitino does," said Romar. "He didn't just stumble upon being a Hall of Fame coach. He's going to do whatever it takes to win the ball game. He's going to exploit weaknesses. He's adept enough and wise enough to cover a lot of offenses and defenses."

And the irony of this matchup of two teams that both average over 80 points per game this season is that the coaches feel that ultimately it will be defense and rebounding that tell the tale of who comes out of this tilt with a 'W' and who goes home.

"I think our quickness is more of an advantage to us," Romar said when asked about how his team has been able to surprise bigger teams on the boards. "I think it allows us to outrebound teams because we are quicker to the basketball. You could be nine-foot tall, but who is going to get there first. Louisville negates that advantage somewhat because they are also very quick."

But more than anything, it's Louisville's stifling 2-3 zone that has Romar shaking his head. It's the same zone that totally took Georgia Tech out of their game in the round of 32. "Whenever you have five guys in sync on defense, whatever defense you are running will be effective," he said. "It's not a case where just three guys know what's going on and two don't. They are also very quick and have interchangeable parts, which allows them to be effective in a zone like that."

But the Huskies will look to push tempo at every convenient moment, including easy transition baskets early. It happened for Jones in the Huskies second-round game against Pacific, as guard Tre Simmons lobbed a long pass to Jones for an emphatic jam that got the crowd on its feet.

"A dunk can do wonders for you sometimes, especially at the beginning of a game, because there's no feeling like it. After that dunk, I felt like no one could stop me, offensively or defensively. Sometimes the simplest things can make the biggest difference. That definitely got our engines started."

"I really like when we play Arizona, USC and even UCLA this year, because it becomes more mano-a-mano," added Huskies junior guard Brandon Roy. "It's our talent against their talent, and those are the games you enjoy playing. There's a lot of points that are going to be scored and there's going to be a lot of matchups people are going to want to watch. I'm happy we're playing a team like this in the Sweet Sixteen."

By pushing things, Romar hopes it can give his team the advantage at the charity stripe, where they went a combined 31-41 in their first two tournament wins against Montana and Pacific. "When you get down to Sweet Sixteen play and further, teams are so good defensively," he said. "The ability to be aggressive, get to the foul line and make foul shots and outside shots is really important."

Pitino takes a more philosophical approach to tomorrow's game. My view of it is that this is a time to have fun," he said. "The toughest game for me personally is the first one. I think that's where all the pressure lies. I think that's where the players are tight no matter what you try and do for them. They're all uptight and then the second game you're much looser but the only thing you're hoping for at that point is to win the two and get to the Sweet 16.

"For the first time you can really visualize getting to the Final Four so it's time to have fun."

Nate Robinson couldn't agree more.

Notes:
Dunk you very much, pt. II: Just as in Boise, the team took the last 10-12 minutes of their practice session to wow the 500 or so fans that were at The Pit to take in the free event. Robinson, Conroy, Joel Smith, Mike Jensen and Bobby Jones were the main participants. Those watching appeared suitably impressed and the Huskies also spent a considerable amount of time after practice to sign autographs for eager fans as they worked their way up the ramp to their locker room.

No boos for Jamaal: when junior forward Jamaal Williams came out for Washington's practice session at The Pit, he was expecting a few New Mexico fans to boo, but instead he was greeted with warm applause. "We miss you Jamaal," could be heard by a couple of fans in attendance.

Hans and Fletch take it off: Hans Gasser and Matt Fletcher both showed off their new crew-cuts Wednesday.

Zach attack in NM: Zach Johnson traveled with the squad and the 6-9 freshman from Sacramento, California was without a knee brace during UW's hour-long practice session.


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