Perhaps the last team Washington wanted to see after being dominated on the glass in its last two outings is USC and its supersized front line featuring star freshman Onyeka Okongwu.
The Huskies (10-4, 0-1 Pac-12) must solve their troublesome rebounding issues, which have contributed to their first two-game skid of the season, against the Pac-12’s best rebounding team.
“Championship programs respond in a positive way,” UW coach Mike Hopkins said. “And I challenged them to respond. We’ve got to have better practices. We’ve got to have more focus. We’ve got to get better.”
Last week, Houston swarmed the glass (nine Cougars had at least two rebounds) for a 37-31 rebounding advantage and a 75-71 win in the Diamond Head Classic title game.
Thursday, UCLA bullied its way to 22 offensive rebounds and a 38-27 rebounding to hand UW a 66-64 upset loss in the Pac-12 opener.
In both games, the Huskies were outscored 32-11 in second-chance points.
“It’s a focus,” Hopkins said when asked about UW’s rebounding troubles. “When you’re in a zone, there are a lot of holes. A lot of it is not, I’m going to go box out (someone). You’re rebounding areas.
“In the first half (against Houston) we did a great job. Our nose was on the ball. The second half we just didn’t against Houston. That ended up being a big part of the game. In championship-level basketball, where we want to be playing at the end of the year, you have to be able to do those things.”
Not surprisingly, Washington has been out-rebounded in three of its four losses.
Being the less-aggressive team that gets outworked inside is especially offensive to Isaiah Stewart, who is the epitome of aggression and hard work. There’s a simple solution to UW’s rebounding troubles, according to UW’s star freshman forward, who averages 19.6 points and 9.0 rebounds.
“Want it more,” Stewart said. “You can’t teach someone how to rebound the basketball. It has to be in you to go get the ball. You have to have that fight, that eagerness and just be determined to go get it.”
Washington ranks 11th in the Pac-12 with 34.6 rebounds per game and is ninth with a +1.1 rebounding margin.
After Stewart, the rebounding drops off severely with Nahziah Carter (5.6 per game), Jaden McDaniels (5.4) and Hameir Wright (4.4) next on the list.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be a great rebounding team,” Hopkins admits. “But we have to be a better rebounding team.”
If the Huskies don’t improve quickly, they’ll have little chance to slow down red-hot USC (12-2, 1-0), which is riding a six-game winning streak into Sunday’s 7 p.m. matchup at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Led by their imposing front line, the Trojans captured a 65-56 win at Washington State on Thursday. USC out-rebounded the Cougars 46-36 and outscored them 40-28 in the paint.
Okongwu finished with 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting and 12 rebounds for his sixth double-double performance.
“He was really good tonight,” USC coach Andy Enfield told The Associated Press. “They were a little undersized at the power positions and we were big, so he did what he is supposed to do.”
Stewart and Okongwu are similar in size and stature. Both are 6-foot-9 forwards. Stewart weighs 250 pounds, Okongwu 245.
They are highly effective in the paint with a variety of post-up moves and a soft touch around the basket. Defensively, the long-limbed playmakers possess the requisite toughness and quickness of high-level rim protectors.
Both are early front-runners for the Pac-12 freshman of the year award and national honors.
The rising freshman stars are considered one-and-done prospects tabbed as first-round picks in next summer’s NBA draft. NBAdraft.net projects Okongwu will be taken No. 13 and Stewart at No. 16.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of their seasons and ranks in conference statistics.
Points: Stewart is third (19.6); Okongwu sixth (18.4).
Rebounds: Okongwu third (9.2); Stewart fourth (9.0).
Blocks: Okongwu is second (3.2); Stewart third (1.9).
Field-goal percentage: Okongwu is third (64.6); Stewart sixth (60.4).
Okongwu, who won three state titles and was a back-to-back California Mr. Basketball honoree, produced 20-point performances in his first two games at USC.
In the Trojans’ fifth game, Okongwu scored a career-high 33 points while connecting on 8 of 11 field goals and 17 of 21 free throws.
Paired with senior forward Nick Rakocevic (14.7 points per game and 9.3 rebounds) and backup freshman forward Isaiah Mobley (8.5 and 6.3), Okongwu leads a USC team that ranks first in the Pac-12 with a 40.2 rebounding average.
The Trojans have held their last three opponents to a combined 34.4% shooting (71 of 206). For the season, USC is holding the opposition to 38.3% shooting, which ranks 26th in the country.
Stewart doesn’t believe Hopkins can devise better schemes and puts the onus on UW players to avoid a three-game losing streak.
“Just play ball,” he said. “The coaches can’t do it for us. We have to go out and play hard.”