Washington knows the only remedies for its flaws are focus and intensity. In college basketball's month of opportunity, can the Huskies lift themselves out of the doldrums?
You will always want more. The Washington men’s basketball team has attempted to please for 29 games now, but regardless of the outcome, the Huskies have been stranded at the corner of Unimpressive and Unfulfilling all season.
This is their humble home. They don’t reside next to praise and hype, where previous Lorenzo Romar teams lived the good life. They’ll never measure up to the standard of the past decade of Husky basketball.
But March, college hoops’ month of opportunity, isn’t about chasing ghosts and living up to a reputation. It’s about survival, period. And though we’ve spent an entire season detailing everything the Huskies are not, all that matters now is who they are and how long they can live with themselves.
They’re not great. They’re not ideal. But they have to be good enough. And for all the dissatisfaction, Washington is starting to play decent basketball at the right time.
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In a rivalry game that had its head-slapping moments, the Huskies beat Washington State 72-68 on Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena. They’ve won their last two games and three of their last four, which is a hot streak for them. And while they still require a lot more makeup to be considered pretty, they are playing with the kind of focus and intensity needed to maximize their talent.
Where will that lead the Huskies? Probably the NIT. It’s still a stretch to think this team could improve enough over the next 10 days to pull off a miracle run in the Pac-12 tournament and earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid. But that’s way too much forward thinking for March.
There’s one mission every day: Play your best and worry about tomorrow if it comes. The Huskies are ready to handle that simple aspiration.
“We know what we do,” senior point guard Abdul Gaddy said. “It’s just a matter of doing it.”
What they do — scrap on defense, leverage their perimeter skill to scrounge up some offense and muster contributions, no matter how small, from everyone in their eight-man rotation — was good enough to start Pac-12 play with four straight wins. Since then, Washington (16-13, 8-8 Pac-12) has been mostly confounding. Now, though, they’re playing with more purpose.
Gaddy is focused again on being simply a floor leader and distributor. C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs, who had 23 points each on Sunday, are scoring more efficiently.
The Huskies are built around those three guards leading their offense. They have to stick to their roles and produce despite the amount of defensive attention. Otherwise, their teammates must try to play beyond their skill sets to account for the offensive shortcomings, which has been a formula for lackluster losses and heavy criticism.
It was an encouraging sign to see the Huskies shoot 53.3 percent and make 7 of 17 three-pointers (41.2 percent) against the Cougars. No, Washington State isn’t exactly Michigan State on defense, but the Huskies have struggled against bad defenses, too.
On the other hand, Washington didn’t guard the Cougars well, either, allowing Washington State to shoot 51.2 percent. But the Huskies did force 18 turnovers and convert them into 25 points. Their 25-7 advantage in points off turnovers is something Romar has been wanting all season.
“That was refreshing to see,” the Washington coach said.
Of course, the performance wasn’t without its frustrations. The Huskies are bound to trip over themselves. They’ve done it throughout the season. They don’t play clean, smooth games. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t realize they’re not talented enough to play without extraordinary effort. Sometimes, it’s because they’re not focused enough. It’s a familiar flaw that won’t go away. Still, even with those warts, Washington is good enough to beat quality teams.
“I’ve said for quite some time, none of us have to have our best game of the year, we just have to go out and play at the level we are capable of playing,” Romar said. “If we are doing that on the same night, I think we can be really competitive with anyone, but we haven’t had that consistency this year.”
The Huskies might lead the nation in accurate diagnoses of their problems. But this isn’t the time for introspection. This is the time to accentuate the positive.
They can’t change the negative perceptions they’ve created with their uneven play. And certainly, they can’t live up to The Standard. But as the season comes to a close, the Huskies are showing signs of desperation.
From Suggs’ intensity level to Gaddy’s steady leadership, they’re starting to play like a team that doesn’t want a tough season to end. They’re living in the now.
It’s better than being at the corner of Unimpressive and Unfulfilling.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.