Dangerous Dawgs have found their bite

Lorenzo Romar (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

Washington is peaking at the right time. Unlike Thursday's NCAA first-round game against Marquette, the mood on the UW sidelines Saturday afternoon against New Mexico in the next round was different – for obvious reasons. Washington ran over the No. 3 seed and eighth-ranked New Mexico Lobos like a freight train. The Huskies are the current, working definition of "team" in its purest form.

The biggest question is; where do they go from here? And I'm not talking about Syracuse, site of UW's Sweet 16 game versus West Virginia this coming Thursday. Maybe the better way to phrase it is; how far can they go from here?

The answer today feels light years from where the Huskies were, even two weeks ago. The last time Washington entered the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed, they lost to Connecticut on a Richard Hamilton buzzer-beater.

The last time they were in a Sweet 16 game, they lost to the same Connecticut Huskies in overtime. You could say the Gods of college basketball owe UW a break or two, as an Elite Eight appearance has not been beyond their depth, yet has still eluded Lorenzo Romar's Hoop Dawgs.

2010 has a different feel from 1998 and 2006 in many ways. In '98, it was all about Todd MacCulloch and his commanding presence in the post. In 2006, Brandon Roy was a unanimous All-American, later to have his jersey retired. This year's team also has a dominant senior like 2006 in Quincy Pondexter, but it could be a while before Quincy's jersey is retired, and if the national media are any indication they still have trouble remembering that there's no 'i' in his name.

And no one is averaging a double-double inside like MacCulloch did in his day.

In fact, the only thing that truly defines this team right now is what they are doing in the present, because any comparisons to their earlier play just leads to a lot of head-scratching. Like, 'How could a team that bad become this good?'

It's not unprecedented. Romar's 2004 team was 0-5 in league before coming of age and eventually earning an NCAA Tournament berth.

Some questions are best left unanswered, but we're going to try and look at a few things that have helped contribute to the Huskies' meteoric rise back to the lofty rankings they had in the pre-season.

Typically, it's common practice for NCAA Tournament coaches to tighten rotations, as the learning process is often sacrificed in the pursuit of tournament glory. Yet Romar continues to defy conventional wisdom, utilizing a deep rotation and spreading minutes whenever possible.

That strategy is clearly making a positive impact for several players. While Pondexter continues to thrive in the limelight, Isaiah Thomas has been a huge revelation in the tournament thus far, clearly relishing his new role setting up his teammates. So far in two games the sophomore guard has dished out 15 dimes. His playmaking has been spectacular, and his teammates have responded with breakout games up and down the lineup. It's no coincidence that Elston Turner and Matthew Bryan-Amaning have emerged as legitimate go-to scorers. Thomas' 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio speaks volumes of his contributions on the floor, even as his scoring contributions remain steady.

The Huskies are improving exponentially with every game, and that's dangerous for any team they face in a one-off tournament situation. Marquette and New Mexico learned that lesson the hard way. But for Washington, that's been the case since mid-February, and they've shown no signs of letting up. In fact, if the recent performance of Turner, Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Abdul Gaddy is any indication, the best is still to come.

Speaking of Gaddy, let's put to rest any talk of him being a disappointment. He may not be putting up typical Burger Boy numbers, but he's clearly giving the Huskies exactly what they need. His defense has improved immensely, and he's controlling the game and relieving some of the pressure off Thomas as the teams' primary ball handler in the beginning of games - when the tempo is set.

Lest we forget, Gaddy is one of the youngest players in the NCAA. While other kids his age are getting fitted for prom suits, he is busy juggling college courses and running the point for one of the hotter basketball teams in the country. We've all seen enough flashes out of him to know he has a brilliant future with Washington. Husky fans need only remember back to Pondexter's early struggles to remind them how a little patience can pay off, especially down the road.

The Huskies wouldn't be headed to New York without significant improvements under the hoop, and Bryan-Amaning continues to provide a huge lift. The numbers show a vast improvement from just two months ago: A solid 13 points and six rebounds a game in the tournament thus far paint a picture of a solid contributor, but they don't tell the whole story. Bryan-Amaning has drawn raves for his ability to leave defenders in the dust and finish the fast break, and than there's his impact defending the basket. With five rejections so far in tourney play, MBA's incredible length and shot-blocking prowess has altered the way opponents counter Washington's ability to extend their stifling man-to-man defense.

Venoy Overton continues to give the Huskies a significant lift with his special brand of 'Venoyance'. Washington runs more than just about any team in the country, and that adjustment alone is hard enough to handle for opposing teams without having to deal with Overton entering the game at the 16-minute mark and pushing the tempo even further into the red.

Washington is deadly in transition, and it isn't an easy strategy to counter. Opponents must not only deal with Overton and his backcourt mates racing end-to-end, but they have to counter MBA, Pondexter and Holiday sprinting down the floor as well. And on top of everything else, they also have to keep the Huskies off the offensive glass.

Another reason for Washington's newfound success has been the vast improvement in their three-point shooting, which has forced opponents to extend their defense as the Huskies are able to more effectively spread the floor. UW is averaging better than 40 percent from three in the post-season and it's had a dramatic impact on the rest of their offense, not to mention their confidence.

Thomas has done his fair share of damage from deep, but Turner - for the second year in a row - has become a tournament high-seed slayer with the bombs he's dropped against Marquette and New Mexico. The gifted second year scorer from Texas is starting to make his mark on the Husky offense as a versatile, consistent scoring threat, averaging 12 points in 22 minutes a game while shooting 60 percent from three.

His efforts on defense have been a bit of an eye-opener as well, allowing Romar to utilize him in clutch situations on both ends of the floor. At times this season, the Huskies have struggled to find a secondary scoring threat, and Turner's fearlessness makes him a natural fit for that role right now. He had 20 against Seattle University earlier this season, and has scored in double-digits in both NCAA tournament games so far. It's a safe bet he'll look for his shot with confidence on Thursday.

So much for the offense. The Huskies' identity is built on a foundation of defense, and in that regard they may have shown as much growth as any aspect of their game, and that is probably the answer that makes the most sense when looking for clues to UW's grand reversal of form.

Forget what we thought we knew about their individual defensive abilities; there isn't a player in the rotation that's a liability. Spearheaded by All Pac-10 defensive pick Holiday, who has been nothing short of magnificent at that end of the floor, the Huskies have finally bought into what it means to play team defense.

So to review - the Huskies are a good, possibly great, team who has had a remarkable run in the post-season thus far. Washington's first two opponents in the NCAA tournament proved to be match-ups with some exploitable flaws which the Huskies took advantage of, in large part due to their defense catalyzing their transition game.

Their Sweet 16 opponent, West Virginia, presents a different, more difficult set of challenges. The Mountaineers are a big, quality defensive team who pound the ball into the post while crashing the offensive glass. They draw a lot of fouls, and the Huskies don't have much front court depth. The Mountaineers' stars, Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler, took a combined 23 free throws in their win Sunday over Missouri, and the Huskies' depth will be hard-pressed to absorb that many fouls.

So what's the answer? Run and pressure, and then run some more. If New Mexico was a blueprint, West Virginia could tire easily under that type of relentless attack and not drop back into transition defense as quickly as they should to keep Washington from launching their three-quarter length passes for layups.

The Huskies can't win a slug-fest against the burly Mountaineers, but what they lack in sheer brawn they make up for in speed. West Virginia is prone to long scoring droughts as well, which means missed shots and lots of opportunities for transition baskets. They're also susceptible to backcourt pressure – something the Huskies could exploit.

So the Huskies face a difficult opponent who plays a dramatically differing style to their own. But the same can be said of the Mountaineers – and the Huskies appear to still be trending upward. These Dawgs have an opportunity to put that fourth NCAA game on their season resume for the first time since 1953, when they finished No. 3 in the country.

Truth be told - it's doubtful the UW players gave much mind to picking a team they'd rather face this Thursday, because they are so focused on their own game. And ultimately, that's the answer to 'How far can they go from here?'

And it's also what makes them as dangerous a team to face right now as anyone - an unwavering commitment to Husky Basketball and what can happen when hard work and a belief in doing things the right way intersect on the court. It's a magical thing to behold.

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