Winning close ones key to advancing

So, here we are, heading to the NCAA Tournament, coming off a loss and running into a team on fire. The fact that Mississippi State won the SEC Tournament makes you wonder what they are doing as a 13-seed and Washington not only lost to Arizona State but they really were bad at times against Stanford.

Certainly beating Washington State and winning the Pac-10 conference championship outright was a historic accomplishment, and maybe it made the Pac-10 tourney a little anticlimactic, but forget about all that. It's time to get ready to stop a team that just won its fourth game in a row, taking the SEC championship tournament while they were doing it.

Mississippi State has a war-daddy on the box and in the post and he is a shot blocking machine. Jon Brockman will have his hands full Thursday trying to stop and control the Bulldogs' Jarvis Varnado, who not only leads his team and conference in shot blocking but the nation as well. He also leads them in scoring and rebounding, and personally blocked more shots than 325 teams did this year. If Brockman can cancel him out statistically then the rest of the Huskies will need to step up and win the game. His body type is very thin but has long arms like Matthew Bryan-Amaning does for the Huskies.

I saw the SEC championship game twice and Varnado was terrible in the first half. It looked like the fourth game in four days had totally wiped him out. He got two first half fouls and sat much of the half. They used him a lot in high pick and roll situations versus man defense and he likes to roll more than he likes to pick. Much of their offense was to spread their four guards around the perimeter then have him work the middle with post-ups and pick and rolls on man with the ball.

He took an elbow versus Tennessee and took himself out of the game. He got his third early into the second half but kept himself out of fouling out. Then all of a sudden with 10 minutes or so to go he absolutely explodes and totally takes over the game with a series of blocked shots and rebounds. He became a monster, swiping the ball and denying every drive to the hoop. He probably checked a half dozen shots in that last 10 minutes.

Washington will need to get back to own their defensive pressure and relentless rebounding game. And offensively, whenever you get to the tournament you have to be ready for a variety of zones, and that means Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas, and 3-point specialist Elston Turner have to be hot from the perimeter and attack Varnado by driving the ball right at him.

Another way to attack him might be by going right into Brockman continually and make the guy play hard on defense. Of course that could invite double-teaming and then the outside shot has to be there for the kick-out. Offense was the weak point during the Pac-10 Tournament, and getting into an offensive flow early might be a key as well.

Brockman on the low block and good outside shooting will win this game for the Huskies but driving hard, getting fouls, and sinking foul shots will certainly help. That has been a Huskies' strength this whole season.

The Bulldogs have gone to a four-guard lineup to go with Varnado, and they have 4-5 kids that look like interchangeable parts in that they are all about 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds and are extremely quick and long. Because their guards tend to camp on the outside you can't sag too much to help on the post because they all will fire it up from three. As I suggested earlier, whoever is hot from the outside will probably win this game as both teams are guard-oriented.

Mississippi State won their conference tournament by winning three of four close games and that tends to be part of tournament basketball. Invariably, every team that gets to the Final Four always wins a nail-biter or two along the way. It happened to Washington the last time they were in the dance and maybe this time they'll have a chance to return the favor to those other Huskies, from Connecticut.

I hope we get that far, and if we do it will probably be because we were hot from the outside and won a close game.


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