The manner in which that question is answered will depend largely on whether or not the Huskies can get back to the high octane multiple-guard attack that made them so successful from the latter half of the 03-04 season through the 05-06 season.
With Hawes in the fold last season and all-conference bruiser Jon Brockman returning for his sophomore year, the Huskies were forced to go to a more half court-oriented offense, but the transition did not go smoothly. The Huskies looked to be off and running in their non-conference slate, losing only to Gonzaga and beating up 2006 final four participant LSU. However, the Gonzaga loss was far more indicative of what to expect from the Huskies than any of Washington's non-conference wins. In that game, Hawes led the Huskies in scoring with 20 points and Brockman was also highly productive, chipping in 13 points and 12 boards. Freshman Quincy Pondexter displayed his considerable promise as well. The rest of the team simply did not hold up their end of the bargain. The backcourt trio of Justin Dentmon, Ryan Appleby, and Adrian Oliver combined to shoot 8-31 from the field, 1-13 from 3, and turned the ball over six times. As a team the Huskies turned the ball over 15 times (not terrible, but not good), while only forcing eight turnovers and playing sieve-like defense, particularly on the perimeter.
The Huskies got creamed 97-77.
This performance set the stage for what would be a theme for the season – poor guard play, resulting in an inability to consistently run either their transition or half-court offense - compounded by bad perimeter defense. The Huskies' backcourt lacked quickness, had trouble creating shots, shot poorly, and did not take care of the ball. Some of the pundits contend that Dentmon took a step back, and while there may be something to that contention, he was more or less the same player last season that he was as a freshman. He shot better in 2007 - .409 from the field and .286 from 3 in 2006 vs. .408 from the field and .315 from 3 in 2007; averaged 8.6 PPG in 2006 and 10.1 PPG in 2007. He did a decent job taking care of the ball in 2006 with a 124 to 88 (1.4:1) A/TO ratio, but without lottery pick Brandon Roy to take the pressure off he regressed a bit, posting a 115 to 96 (1.2:1) A/TO ratio. The biggest difference in Dentmon though does not show up in the stat sheet. He looked unsure, indecisive and lacked confidence for large stretches last season and there is no doubt that it played a role in his ineffectiveness at guarding opposing point guards.
Freshman Adrian Oliver, despite having a lot of potential, had a rough first season, averaging just 4.7 PPG, shooting .377 from the field (.305 from 3), and more or less got overpowered by his counterparts on both sides of the ball. Because of Oliver's travails, sharp-shooting sixth man Ryan Appleby was forced into starting duty. While he fared better than Oliver, it was simply too much to expect Appleby to carry a starter's backcourt load, as it doesn't fit his skill set. Appleby is a great player for a coach to have at his disposal off the bench; he has the quickest trigger in the Pac-10 and is a great 3-point shooter, possessing both accuracy and range. But he is a mediocre ball handler, doesn't always play smart, and at times talks a little more than he should. He puts forth a lot of effort on defense, but that doesn't always translate into effectiveness, due to his lack of quickness and athleticism relative to the majority of Pac-10 shooting and point guards. Appleby is a fiery and well-liked teammate and provides instant offense, but as he displayed last season, he starts to become a liability when he plays more than 20 minutes in a game.
Many pundits will point to Washington's ability (or lack thereof) to replace Hawes' production as a key to their season, but the development of their backcourt will be the number-one determining factor in their success. Hawes was great, but finding an effective center will not fix their biggest issues nearly as much as major improvement in their backcourt. There is no doubt that they have a lot of potential on their roster, particularly in the backcourt, and hopefully the development of that talent will help them improve upon last season when they were 10th in the conference in scoring defense, eighth in field goal percent defense, sixth in turnovers forced, ninth in turnover margin, ninth in total turnovers and seventh in A/TO ratio.
So how do the Huskies accomplish this feat? For starters, Stanford transfer Tim Morris will be eligible after sitting out a year. He may immediately move into the starting lineup at shooting guard. Morris isn't a great outside shooting threat, but he is pretty quick and athletic and handles the ball well, possesses a decent mid-range game, as well as a scorer's mentality. Most importantly, he will be a significant defensive upgrade over anyone the Huskies played at the 2-spot last season. Morris isn't an all-conference caliber player and shouldn't be counted on to be anything more than a complementary scorer, but of the Huskies' available options to begin the season, he has the best combination of skill, athleticism, defensive prowess and experience. He will help the Huskies begin to get back to the aggressive backcourt play that was their trademark, and should start until one of the younger players asserts himself as a superior option.
Fortunately, the Huskies also have several other players with potential, and topping the list is Oliver, who appeared overwhelmed at times during his freshman campaign. Most players take their biggest developmental step forward between their freshman and sophomore seasons and Oliver is full of potential. He's an above-average athlete, with smooth, deceptive quickness. He moves very well without the ball and due to his solid understanding of offensive spacing, knows how to get open for jump shots. He is also fairly creative with the ball. His downfall last season was a combination of a lack of confidence and size, as he was totally overwhelmed by several shooting guards.
Another player expected to make significant contributions is Joel Smith. Smith was slated to be the starter last season before being sidelined by a stress fracture that ultimately ended his season. By all accounts he is now healthy and will challenge for big minutes immediately. The biggest asset Smith brings to the position is athleticism. A spectacular leaper, he has a solid handle and is a capable shooter (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3 as a frosh). His athleticism and big body also give him the potential to be an excellent defender and, if he can prove himself to be a consistent offensive threat, and will battle for the starting shooting guard position.
At 6-foot-6, freshman Justin Holiday is a lanky athlete who handles the ball well and was an outstanding defender at the high school level. He's raw and needs to pack on some muscle to be able to withstand the physicality he will
experience during an entire college season, but has considerable upside due to his length and defensive motor.
At the point guard slot, the Huskies' situation is all but set, as Justin Dentmon will look to rebound from a mediocre sophomore season. Dentmon played heavy last year, and the result was an obvious drop in quickness, which left him at a disadvantage against the conference's speedier point guards. To address it, Dentmon re-dedicated himself to conditioning during the off-season, shedding several pounds while working to improve his endurance, and the results have been dramatic. Conditioning alone won't fix Dentmon's problems; taking care of the ball will. Last season he played anxious and overaggressive at times, and occasionally struggled to execute the offense, especially when it involved finding the post. He also needs to continue to improve the consistency of his shooting and shot selection. If Dentmon can get comfortable and realize that he is more of a game manager in the mold of former Connecticut point guard Khalid El Amin (albeit a less hefty version), than a dynamic play maker like Aaron Brooks, his struggles should disappear in the rear-view mirror.
The Dawgs will also feature a new face at point guard in local product Venoy Overton, who wowed fans with 16 points in his Washington debut last week against Seattle Pacific. Overton is more of a true point, gifted with blazing speed, exceptional vision and an outstanding defensive motor. The speedy freshman who originally committed to USC needs to work on his outside shooting but is adept at getting into the lane and sees the court exceptionally well. If Dentmon falters again, it's not inconceivable that Overton could get a starting shot, but will see plenty of court time regardless.
The Huskies are set at the 3 and 4 slots with Quincy Pondexter and Jon Brockman, respectively. Pondexter had an encouraging first season as a Dawg, and was one of the conference's better freshman in a talented and productive freshman class. Toward the end of the year though, Pondexter's production tailed off the across the board as Hawes became the focal point of the offense. His approach became erratic and he did not play well in the flow of the more deliberate offense. He also had trouble taking care of the ball, committing 65 turnovers compared to 49 assists, though his shooting was a big surprise. After an occasionally erratic, but overall solid freshman year, expect the extremely talented Pondexter to take a step forward and potentially lead the Huskies in scoring.
Behind Pondexter is athletic freshman Darnell Gant. Gant is long, very bouncy and a good shot blocker, but may need a year of seasoning before he's ready to contribute regularly.
At the 4 spot, Brockman is everything a coach could ask for from a power forward. He isn't particularly quick and he lacks the 'freakish' athleticism that often characterizes undersized posts, but he is bull-strong, plays smart and focused and as they say in football, he plays 100 percent from snap to whistle. He scores well on the low block, often using his strength to bulldoze his way to the hoop. Brockman also possesses an improving jumper out to 17 feet, especially from the elbow, and gets a lot of points on rebounds and put backs. Defensively Brockman doesn't particularly stand out, but plays fearless position D and is the best rebounder in the Pac-10.
There are two areas that Brockman could improve on. He is a mediocre free throw shooter at 66 percent. Owing to his strength and aggressiveness he initiates a lot of contact, and as such, led the team in free throws attempted last season. The area he most needs to improve upon the most, however, is turnovers. Brockman turned the ball over 85 times last year while recording just 35 assists for an ugly ratio of 1:2.43. That is way too many for a power forward. By comparison power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had a 65 to 65 (1:1) A/TO ratio and Maarty Leunen had a 77 to 58 (1.33:1) A/TO ratio. When you consider that the latter two are both better ball-handlers than Brockman and play that role more in their respective offenses, it's clear that Brockman is handling the ball way too much away from the hoop. He needs to either improve his ball skills significantly or pick his spots better - probably both. Improving in that area would go a long way to improving one of Washington's major problem areas from last year. All told, Brockman is an outstanding player, the team MVP and will be vying for a slot as a first-team All American.
At the conspicuously vacant center spot, there are three viable options – Junior Artem Wallace, redshirt sophomore Joe Wolfinger, and freshman Matthew Bryan-Amaning. Wallace is a big-bodied athlete and has shown potential at times, but he has been slow in picking up the college game and appears at times to be severely lacking in natural feel. However, he has not gotten much playing time in his career, so it remains to be seen what he can contribute with increased minutes. Wolfinger is huge but has had an injury-plagued two seasons with the Huskies. At this point he is an unknown quantity in terms of production, showing flashes of brilliance - debuting with 17 points in the Dawgs' first game in Greece. Physically he is a mediocre athletic with limited quickness, but has a solid body for a 7-footer. He also possesses a peerless work ethic, and has been touted as a top three-point marksman on a team full of shooters.
Bryan-Amaning is a British product, coming over from the same program that produced former Duke Blue Devil's Luol Deng and Eric Boateng. As is often the case with foreign-born big men, Bryan-Amaning is raw, but oozing with potential, which could carry him into the starting lineup from the outset. The 6-foot-9 power forward/center is athletic and is already showing signs of being a versatile defender. It looks like he can effectively guard bigger perimeter players, as well as being a solid inside presence. His offensive game is behind his defense at this point, but catching up quickly. He has a developing jump shot with range out to 20 feet and at this point is a better face-up player than a back-to-the-basket scorer. With his athleticism, quickness and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he is the Huskies' best option for a center that can fit into the athletic transition game the Huskies play. He also has by far the most potential as an interior defensive presence. The Huskies badly need a boost of athleticism to effectively run their offense and pick up their lackluster defense, and the man they call 'MBA' is just the man to help put the Huskies back in business, particularly on defense.
The Huskies have major holes to fill and issues to fix but also a variety of options to do it. The major difference between the Huskies and the two teams herein rated above them - USC and Arizona - is not coaching or overall talent, but the fact that despite bringing in a quality recruiting class, their recruiting class didn't bring in any truly elite players like OJ Mayo or Jerryd Bayless.
Topping their list of concerns was their porous defense, which was not good last season, especially for a team that likes to advertise defense as their identity. There is hope though, as the young team improved over the course of the season, particularly in their season finale when they knocked off eventual Final Four returnee UCLA. If the Huskies can answer their significant backcourt questions, re-establish their defensive identity, and find a way to put their young athletes in a position to succeed, they should rebound nicely and perhaps finish in the top half of the conference standings.
But until they prove it on the court, Washington has too many holes to fill and too many questions to answer to be slotted above any of the teams above them on this list as of now.
#7 - Washington Huskies
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