The Washington men’s basketball team’s ball-hawking and three-point denying defense, which had been the foundation to its Pac-12 regular-season championship and NCAA tournament run just two years ago, is seemingly broken beyond repair.
How else to assess a maligned Husky team that went into Thursday night’s matchup at USC allowing 92, 80, 91 and 84 points in its previous four games?
Against the Trojans, and the tandem of Evan and Isaiah Mobley, UW allowed a season high in points and provided little resistance while falling 95-68 at the Galen Center for its seventh straight defeat.
“We’re just getting crushed interior wise, and we’ve just got to be better,” UW coach Mike Hopkins said. “There’s no resistance in there. Nate Roberts, Riley (Sorn) and those guys in there are fighting, but they have to keep developing and getting better. It’s too easy.
“We’re not getting the same resistance as we have in the past in the paint. And that’s been killing us.”
At its best, the Huskies’ 2-3 zone defense smothers opponents inside the paint while simultaneously making it difficult for teams to score outside.
Hopkins admits the scheme he brought with him from Syracuse, where he spent two decades as an assistant, make its difficult to rebound and gives up open midrange jumpers.
However, Hopkins said those deficiencies can be overcome with an exuberance of effort and activity, which has was sorely missing from the Huskies.
“In my opinion, we just have to be grittier,” Hopkins said. “You just have to be grittier, bottom line. And we weren’t tonight.”
Any signs of improvement the Huskies (1-10, 0-6 Pac-12) made last week during a six-point loss at California, which snapped a three-game string of blowouts by 16 points or more, were swatted away by a dominant Trojans front line featuring the Mobley brothers.
Washington is able to compete against the dregs of the Pac-12, but the Huskies were outmanned, outmuscled and outclassed by a USC team that has conference-title aspirations.
UW had difficulty scoring inside against a Trojans team that entered the game leading the nation with 6.5 blocks per game and second in the country holding opponents to 36.0% shooting from the field.
USC, which is the tallest team in the nation with eight players 6-foot-7 or taller, put the game away early while connecting on its first eight shots to build a 22-10 lead.
The Trojans missed their first shot with 10:38 remaining when Evan Mobley’s three-pointer missed the mark. He didn’t miss many inside the arc while scoring 17 points and spearheading a punishing USC offense that outscored UW 42-22 in the paint.
“They’re a big team,” said UW junior guard Jamal Bey, who finished with 11 points. “It was difficult for sure. We’ve got to get better. We’re all college players. We play against height all the time.
“We’ve just got to get better. It’s not as much as our offense, it’s our defense. We’re letting teams score 90 points. You can’t win if they’re scoring 90 points on us.”
The Trojans used quick interior passes against the Huskies’ 2-3 zone to flush eight dunks and connect on 50.8% of their field goals. UW was 37.9% from the field, including 9-of-23 shooting on three-pointers (39.1%).
USC freshman forward Boubacar Coulibaly capped the first-half scoring with a two-hand slam and UW went into halftime down 44-23.
“We’re getting beat down low pretty bad, and then we’re getting beat on the three,” Bey said. “Usually we take away the three a lot better, and we’re not doing that. They were hitting us on both ends, the low post, the three and the midrange. It’s hurting us on all levels right now, and that’s what we need to fix.”
Washington made a run early in the second half with a small lineup utilizing a trapping, pressing and man-to-man defense. The Huskies cut their deficit to 14 points (50-36) with 16:20 and 16 points (66-50) with 9:57 remaining, but never got any closer.
“It’s very frustrating because we see the glimpses of what we can be and how good we can be,” Bey said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to bring it the whole game and at least start off the game so we’re not down 20 and we’re not digging ourselves out of a hole.”
USC eventually took advantage of UW’s smaller lineup to pull away and lead by 30 points in the final minutes. Hopkins described a matchup that pitted the 6-foot-6 Bey against 7-footer Evan Mobley as a “lightweight fighting a heavyweight.”
“Tonight, their two big guys are as good as anybody in the country,” Hopkins said. “(Evan Mobley) will probably be 1 or 2 pick in the NBA Draft. They were difficult coverage. We got to find ways to be creative and play a little bit of man.”
Erik Stevenson led UW in scoring for a second straight game and finished with 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting, including four three-pointers. Roberts added 10 points and Green, who was hounded by double-teams, tallied just 5 points, 15 fewer than his average against Pac-12 teams.
Isaiah Mobley scored a game-while 18 points while Drew Peterson had 14, Chevez Goodwin 12 and Tahj Eaddy 10 for USC (10-2, 4-1), which stretched its winning streak to five.
The Trojans enjoyed a 41-31 rebounding disparity while connecting on 26 of 37 free throws. The Huskies were 15 of 19 at the line.
“They scored or we fouled,” Hopkins said. “Put a team on the line 37 times, them shooting 50 percent from the field and out-rebounded by 10 is not the recipe for success. We’ve got to be better.”
As the season nears the midpoint, time is running out to make the necessary repairs for Washington, which is free falling toward one of the most disastrous seasons in the 125-year history of the program.
The Huskies are off to their worst start since beginning 1-14 during the 1953-54 season.
Washington caps a four-game road stretch at 2 p.m. Saturday at Pac-12 leader UCLA (10-2, 6-0), which has a five-game winning streak and won 14 straight games at Pauley Pavilion.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Bey said. “We’ve got to have a team meeting or something and figure it out. I think that’s what we’re going to do. Fix some stuff and talk and get some stuff out if we need to. Just get better overall. It is frustrating for sure.”