For erratic UW, turnaround must start now

The Washington Huskies have reached the midpoint of conference play, riding one of the most confounding waves of inconsistency in the program's history. With a conference record of 3-5, the Huskies continue to be the Pac-10's biggest wildcard, in some games looking very much the part of the conference's best team and at other times, the worst.

The Huskies still have a fleeting shot at winning a conference title, though their margin for error is razor thin. Sitting two and a half games back of the Pac-10 leading Cal Bears, whom the Huskies dominated two weeks ago, the three game home-stand couldn't arrive at a better time for a team that has forgotten how to win on the road.

"If we're not going to depend on the Pac-10 tournament, we need to get going," UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said Friday. "Right now with five losses and Cal with two losses, you're starting to look at a lot of making up. If we were to drop another couple, that really puts us in a bind in terms of winning the Pac-10."

It's no secret the Huskies have struggled against zone defenses. Fans have been quick to point fingers in a number of directions. For those wondering how the term "out of sync" translates to the basketball court, it should be fairly obvious by now. Say all you want about Isaiah Thomas or Abdul Gaddy, but ultimately any blame lies with the Husky post play, which has been a huge disappointment to say the least. ESPN highlights are entertaining, but Romar would gladly trade every one of them for a consistent 10 and 7 contributor down low. The fact is, based on the production of the first half of the season, he's not going to get it with this group; not this season at any rate, which means the Huskies are going to have to find other ways to compensate.

Does that mean it's time to throw in the towel for 2010? Not necessarily.

Quincy Pondexter is easily the best player in the Pac-10 and it isn't close. The senior guard and Wooden Award candidate is averaging 19.9 points and eight rebounds a game. It's a rare instance when one player on the team can be their best forward, post player and guard, but that's what you're seeing right now with Pondexter. He has also become the team's most versatile defender and become a solid ball handler to boot. He's also emerged as the team's best 3-point shooter, raising his percentage to 44 percent on the season. Unfortunately, there aren't five of him, and coach Romar has had a difficult time finding a complement to his immense set of skills.

"It would help, in terms of us being more successful, but in terms of what he's done, I don't think there's any question you have to consider him for Player of the Year in the conference," Romar said. "He's one of the tops in so many statistical categories."

The UW backcourt, which remains loaded with budding talent, has been a mixed bag this season. Isaiah Thomas has been an enigma at times on offense this year, and his shooting percentages have plummeted, but there's no denying his impact defensively, as well as on the glass. Venoy Overton remains very much the same player he was when he arrived as one of the most intimidating defenders in the Pac-10. Abdul Gaddy continues his maturation process, and has improved immensely on the defensive end over the last couple of months. While he may not be living up to the considerable hype that accompanied his recruitment, he's slowly coming around on the offensive end, scoring double digits in three of the last six games. He'll need to assert himself more in the weeks ahead.

Justin Holiday has shown signs recently that he is more than just a defensive stopper. The lanky junior was a revelation against the Northern California schools after being inserted into the starting lineup three weeks ago. He has steadily grown in confidence offensively, averaging better than 50 percent from the floor during that span. Washington's erratic offense needs a boost, and Holiday has shown a willingness to take tough shots. Though most of his field goal attempts have come via mid-range jumpers, Holiday is a capable slasher, and they'll need more of that as Pondexter looks for options out of the high post.

Washington is going to need sophomores Elston Turner, Jr. and Scott Suggs to step up the second half of conference play for the Huskies to have any hope of returning to the NCAA Tournament. Both are exceptional shooters who have struggled to get on track, but Washington needs a way to force their opponents out of the steady diet of zone they're likely to face the rest of the season. Turner and Suggs will be key, despite their relative lack of big-game experience and defensive deficiencies. Turner in particular, has been a head scratcher. He's a gunner, and a fearless scorer, but up until the Seattle game his shots simply haven't fallen. Still, he's the most likely candidate to flip the switch and light up the scoreboard. Whether he has it in him remains to be seen.

Which leaves us with the front court situation, and it isn't pretty. Matthew Bryan-Amaning has been a disappointment and remains lost on the floor much of the time. It's a shame too, because there's so much potential in that body. Washington is a fantastic team when he's playing well, but those spells have been very few and far between. Fans are left to cross their fingers and hope that he figures things out before it's too late.

Beyond that, Romar doesn't have many options. Darnell Gant is a jump-shooting forward, not a post, and he's been forced to play a role he isn't well suited for. Defensively, he's extremely versatile, but ill-equipped to defend 250-pound centers. Tyreese Breshers gets a pass. After sitting two years, he simply isn't ready yet physically for the intense college basketball grind. There's an awful lot to like about the 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman, but he isn't 100 percent and it shows.

We knew going into the season that Washington was a flawed team that would live or die by the play of their guards, but even if the Huskies' backcourt was firing on all cylinders, the challenges in the post would rear their head eventually.

Nothing changes the fact that Washington's backcourt is overflowing with potential and there's a decent chance we'll see them consistently clicking by season's end. Problem is, they've got to start winning now, and winning in convincing fashion. A three-game stretch, starting with Saturday's game against Washington State at home, gives them a chance to establish enough confidence to carry them to their next road trip, where they'll face Stanford and California, schools they flattened two weeks ago.

Fasten your seat belts Husky fans: We're in for a wild ride.


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