Huskies at the Halfway Point

Before the Washington Huskies take on UCLA this evening, we’re midway through the Pac-12 schedule, which seems like a good opportunity to take stock of where the Huskies are after the ups and downs of the first five weekends of conference play.

Washington is 5-4 and tied for fifth place in the Pac-12, which about reflects the way the team has played to date. The Huskies have outscored conference opponents by 0.02 points per possession, which is consistent with a record around 5-4. Colorado, the other team with a +0.02 differential, is 4-5 in the standings, but then we know that’s not their real record.

KenPom.com shows Washington playing the conference’s second most difficult schedule thus far. (Note that this, and all other conference rankings, does not include last night’s pair of games.) That seems a little odd given the Huskies still have two matchups left with UCLA and a trip to Arizona on the schedule, but they’re also finished with Cal and Stanford, the second-best travel pair of schools this year after Arizona and Arizona State. (Washington and Washington State rate as the easiest travel pair, ahead of Colorado/Utah, with whom the Huskies are also done.)

Offense

Washington sits fourth in the conference at 101.3 points per 100 possessions. Overall, this is a below-average offense by Lorenzo Romar stanards ranked ahead of just two UW teams in the last decade — 2007-08 and last season.

The presence of C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs means we tend to think of shooting as the Huskies’ strength, but the team is actually below average when it comes to effective field-goal percentage in conference play and marginally better than average from beyond the arc (33.8 percent, fifth). While Wilcox has kept up his end of the bargain, Suggs’ 36.8 percent three-point shooting is way down from the 45.0 percent he shot as a junior before his redshirt year.

Instead, Washington is better than the average Pac-12 offense largely because of a single factor, the most consistent one throughout the Romar era: Offensive rebounding. In Pac-12 play, they’re rebounding 36.9 percent of their own misses, miles ahead of No. 2 Arizona (33.9 percent).

If there’s one area the Huskies have struggled, it’s taking care of the basketball. They’re 10th in the conference in turnover rate, which is uncharacteristic of a team with a veteran backcourt. For all the grumbling about Tony Wroten‘s miscues, last year’s team was much better at taking care of the basketball. To find an equivalently turnover-prone UW squad, you have to go back to 2008-09, when Isaiah Thomas started at point guard as a freshman.

I think the issue is tied to the Huskies’ emphasis on feeding the post. For example, UW guards had three entry passes stolen by defenders fronting the post on Saturday against Arizona State. Scott Suggs also had a similar turnover when Aziz N’Diaye was rolling to the basket after the pick-and-roll, and two of N’Diaye’s four miscues came when he was in the post.

As appealing as the high-percentage looks N’Diaye post-ups can create may be, they come with a cost in terms of turnovers because he is not a good ballhandler. The post entries weren’t his fault — one was a pass to Kemp — but they still have to figure into the math on feeding the post. It needs to remain just one part of a balanced Husky offensive diet.

Defense

Until last weekend’s wildly different pair of games against the Arizona schools, the Washington offense had been highly consistent in Pac-12 play, netting between 0.97 and 1.05 points per trip every game. By contrast, the Husky defense has been wildly up and down, holding three opponents (Cal, Colorado and Arizona) below 0.85 points per possession while giving up more than 1.05 points per trip during four of the last five games.

Three-point defense regression didn’t really hit UW until Saturday, when the Huskies needed far and away their best offensive outing of the year to overcome the Sun Devils’ scorching 12-19 shooting from beyond the arc. But the defense still collapsed because of open looks in the paint and second chances.

The common denominator when the Washington defense breaks down is that N’Diaye gets pulled away from the basket, leaving it unprotected. This isn’t really anything that N’Diaye is doing wrong; teams are simply using the pick-and-roll to draw him to the perimeter or forcing him to step up in help defense. In basketball parlance, the Huskies have done a poor job of “helping the helper” — having another player step into the paint when N’Diaye is busy guarding the pick-and-roll or cutting off a drive to the basket.

That’s why I’m positive about Shawn Kemp, Jr. claiming the starting job at power forward. Part of the issue is that the other Washington players just aren’t big enough to pose a threat to most players in the paint. Desmond Simmons, the previous starter at power forward, isn’t really a shot blocker. Kemp gives the Huskies another rim protector when N’Diaye is outside the paint.

I was skeptical that the Kemp-N’Diaye combination was quick enough to play extended minutes together, but so far I’ve been proven wrong by the results in terms of plus-minus. The numbers from the last two games are stunning. Washington outscored the Arizona schools by a combined 19 points with both big men on the floor, but was -21 with just N’Diaye.

This came despite the fact that Arizona State’s Jonathan Gilling is one of the worst possible matchups for Kemp, who wasn’t able to protect the rim because he was glued to the sharpshooter. Gilling got his points beyond the arc, but the Huskies made him pay with Kemp’s post-up ability at the other end, turning the mismatch into a net positive.

Looking Ahead

To enter the Pac-12 Tournament with a legitimate shot at an at-large bid, Washington probably needs to finish 11-7 in conference play, meaning a 6-3 record over the second half. That’s doable, but it will require the Huskies to find a win on the road against either the L.A. or Arizona schools and win out at home, beating both Oregon and UCLA. And there certainly can’t be any missteps like a loss to Utah that isn’t looking much better a few weeks in the rear-view mirror.

Optimists can point to the growth of underclassmen Andrews and Kemp as reason for hope. Both are significantly better than they were even at the start of conference play (in Kemp’s case, partly because he was coming back from injury). Gaddy seems to have turned back the confidence issues that had him in a shooting slump a few weeks ago, but Andrews has still earned the right to play down the stretch like he did in both games over the weekends. The scoring punch he — and, to a lesser extent, Kemp — provides has made Washington somewhat less dependent on Wilcox’s production.

Pessimists can note this team is still one injury away from being reduced to a six-player rotation and becoming a significantly worse team, which could quickly derail any tournament talk.

We’ll know which group wins out in a little more than four weeks.

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