UW Hoops Season Preview

Washington has been here before. In 2006, the Huskies entered the season as the media darling of the Pac-10, ranked 12th in the preseason polls and buzzing with excitement over a top-5 recruiting class that included blue chip recruits Spencer Hawes and Quincy Pondexter.

Unfortunately, reality came crashing in as the young Huskies wilted under the heavy expectations, unceremoniously plummeting from the national spotlight. It's taken three years for them to claw their way back.

That was then, this is now and Pondexter, now a senior, is the only holdover from that forgettable season. But like 2006, the Huskies enter this season with a lofty national ranking and elevated expectations, but that's where the similarities end.

This is a veteran Husky team. Unlike 2006, when six of the nine members of rotation consisted of four freshmen, a walk-on and a former walk on, this year's team returns eight players from last seasons rotation – a rotation that won UW its first outright Pac-10 Championship in over 50 years. For the first time in five seasons, it's expected the Huskies won't start a freshman: Pondexter, juniors Venoy Overton and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, and sophomores Darnell Gant and Isaiah Thomas.

Pondexter is unquestionably the team's leader, emerging as the Huskies' best player during the second half of last season. The 6-foot-7 guard has added a reconstructed jump-shot to his impressive offensive arsenal, while transitioning to a more perimeter-oriented game. Pondexter is perhaps the conference's most difficult defensive mismatch; too quick to be defended by forwards and too strong for opposing guards. The Huskies will need his versatility as the try to replace the overwhelming physical presence of UW legend and current Sacremento King, Jon Brockman.

Thomas, last season's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, heads up what appears to be one of the nation's most formidable backcourts. The diminutive sophomore from Tacoma, Wash. averaged 15.5 points per game last year and is the team's most dangerous scorer. Thomas drew the ire of opposing fans with his ability to ping-pong off interior defenders, draining impossible shots from all angles and often ending up at the foul line. If he can improve on his miserable 29.1 shooting percentage from deep, he'll be one of the toughest players to guard in the country.

Thomas will be flanked by their standout defensive stopper in Overton. The 6-foot-1 junior from Seattle's Franklin High returns to the starting lineup after spending his sophomore season coming off the bench. As a reserve, Overton honed his skills on defense until they became razor sharp, ultimately earning a reputation as one of the most feared on-ball defenders in the country. Despite his shooting deficiencies, Overton's speed and edge-of-recklessness control makes him a nightmare to contain with the ball in his hands – Especially in transition.

Heralded freshman and Tacoma native Abdul Gaddy is the most gifted playmaker to ever enter the program. Gaddy is already drawing comparisons to a smaller version of former Husky and now NBA star Brandon Roy. At just 17 years old, Gaddy will be given every opportunity to develop his spectacular game as the first guard off the bench, without the burden of carrying the team.

A trio of talented guards will battle for back-up minutes off Washington's deep bench.

Six-foot-6 junior Justin Holiday is a lockdown defender who is overcoming a groin injury. Though lacking the same offensive skill as the first four, Holiday is invaluable smothering the conference's bigger guards. Sophomore Elston Turner is the Huskies most dangerous shooter who averaged 20 minutes a game in the Huskies' two NCAA Tournament appearances in 2008. Scott Suggs is an athletic, 6-foot-6 do-it-all guard who renewed his dedication to improving over the off-season after a disappointing freshman campaign.

Up front, the Huskies have questions. Tyrese Breshers is the Huskies' most promising post prospect. Undersized and massively built with extraordinarily long arms, the 6-foot-6 freshman sat out last season as he recovered from a leg injury. While still not 100 percent, Breshers' minutes will be limited early in the season, but it's easy to see why Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar has been so publically enthusiastic about Breshers' immense potential - even going so far as to compare him to former Pitt star DeJaun Blair.

Darnell Gant returns to the starting lineup after a successful freshman campaign, and is one of the more versatile defenders in the Pac-10. Despite lacking a back-to-the-basket game, Gant's burgeoning mid-range game will help to create space against opponents packing it in to stop Washington's constant dribble penetration.

Matthew Bryan-Amaning is a gifted athlete who hasn't managed to bring it all together. Regardless of his struggles on offense, Bryan-Amaning gives Romar another versatile post defender who, like Gant, is comfortable guarding smaller players on the perimeter. Another Tacoma-area prep standout is Clarence Trent. The true freshman is an energetic athlete who has a nose for being in the middle of the action. Though Trent has a long way to go with his fundamentals, his energy and athleticism make him a tremendous addition to the Husky bench.
Key Questions Heading into the Season:
How do the Huskies replace Jon Brockman?

This question has become the central theme during the preseason and it's been beaten like a dead horse. The answer lies in the fact that every team takes on a unique character and personality, and this year's Huskies squad will take on a dramatically different tone than the last four seasons. Simply put, they aren't going to replace Brockman, and must approach rebounding differently than in year's past. While they may not dominate the boards the way they have over the last few seasons, the coaching staff still puts a fundamental emphasis on rebounding the ball. It will be a "team" approach to wiping the glass, and though they might not be as effective on the offensive end they may be considerably quicker and better able to finish in transition. As for the leadership void left by the demonstrative Brockman, the exhibition game against Central Washington proved that Pondexter, Thomas and Overton all bring distinctive leadership qualities that should reveal themselves even more over the coming months.

Can the Huskies shoot the ball? With the decision this week to redshirt sharp-shooting frosh C.J. Wilcox, do the Huskies have enough firepower? The more important question might be, do they need it? They were one of the worst shooting teams in the conference last season and won the Pac-10. They don't figure to be any worse in that department this year. With such a major emphasis on penetrating the paint, the Huskies aren't as reliant on 3-point shooting as most programs. That isn't to say it isn't important. They're going to have to hit their shots when they're open, especially in the zone offense, but the Huskies generate the bulk of their offense attacking the basket, in transition and at the free throw line. The one exception is Thomas. If Isaiah can hit from outside with consistency, defenders are going to have to dramatically rethink the way they game-plan him.

What is the biggest cause for concern?

The Huskies could struggle in the front court. Despite the fact that there are so few quality front court players in the Pac-10, Washington needs Breshers and Bryan-Amaning to provide consistent scoring punch in the post, and that's far from guaranteed. Breshers is the real deal, but he's a ways away from being 100 percent. We've seen nothing out of Bryan-Amaning to tell us he's poised for an offensive breakthrough, but the scouting report isn't all bad. Defensively, this should be the strongest front court rotation Romar has fielded at Washington. Gant, MBA and even Trent are all above average defenders. They are highly capable of defending smaller, quicker players on the perimeter. They'll also add a wrinkle to UW's post defense that hasn't been seen in quite some time – shot blocking. The Huskies haven't had a player average more than a block per game since Hawes averaged 1.7 per game four years ago. Before that, Hakeem Rollins managed 1.2 blocks per game in 2003. That should change now with the long-armed Bryan-Amaning and Breshers patrolling the paint.

How weak is Washington's schedule? It's pretty weak. The opener against Wright State is going to be tough, but only because it's a season opener against a decent, senior-dominated team. Georgetown will be a major test because of the presence of a NBA lottery-bound center in Greg Monroe. It should give fans an idea of how Washington matches up against teams with a dominating post presence. Washington got the shaft in the Pac-10/Big 12 Challenge, drawing Texas A&M and Texas Tech, which isn't going to do much for their strength of schedule. As for the Pac-10, it's a down year, and Cal and UW appear to be considerably stronger than the rest of the conference. How that prepares them for post-season play remains to be seen, but I doubt it will help. Don't expect much help for their strength of schedule ranking come Selection Sunday.

How far can they go this season? This looks like a potentially big year for the program, but even with such a fabulous backcourt, Washington's post situation has too many questions to be considered a legitimate Final Four contender. That said, it took a bogus double foul to keep Brandon Roy's 2006 team - with a front court featuring Jamaal Williams, Mike Jensen and a very young Brockman - from the Elite Eight. Breshers, Gant, MBA and Trent have considerably higher upside this season than that 2006 trio. Is this a Top-10 team? With just three games against top-25 teams on the schedule, 27 or more wins isn't out of the question. So I'd say yes, they're a top-10 team when it's all said and done. Whether or not that record has prepared them for a long run in the NCAA tournament is the bigger question and that question has a long way to go before it can be answered.

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