Two BIG opponents the Huskies must overcome

This year’s Husky Men’s Basketball team is a frustrating bunch. It’s not so much that they lose (because, let’s face it, they haven’t done much losing), but how they lose, when they lose. In last night’s game against California, the Dawgs were done in by a half-assed defensive effort that allowed the Bears to score 50 (yes, 50!) points in the final 16 minutes of play. That’s more than three points per minute, meaning the Bears were able to convert at least two buckets for every sixty seconds of play during that time frame. Ridiculous.

But it’s not just defense that has plagued an off-and-on UW squad. On the offensive end, the team has had trouble battling a foe that has battled them for years: the zone defense. Thanks to stellar three-point shooting, the Dawgs have managed to put a band-aid over their frequent zone woes for now, but who knows how long that can last (especially late in the season, when teams typically begin to falter from long range).

With two behemoth obstacles preventing these Huskies from playing their best brand of basketball, I’m here to explain a) what this team is doing wrong and b) what they can do to improve upon their weaknesses. We’ll start with the bad.

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What they are doing wrong: Let’s begin with the defense. The simple answer to the question being asked is lack of effort. The Huskies are displaying very little desire to stop opponents with quality, hard-nosed D. Yet while the Dawgs often seem more focused on their next offensive possession than the current defensive one, there is more to this problem than just an unwillingness to try.

For one thing, the Huskies aren’t entirely bad at defending. The Dawgs do a decent job of on-ball defense, meaning they are able to stay in front of ball-handlers with relative ease. Guys like Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton exemplify this perfectly, rarely letting their man past them with the ball (if the men they’re defending can even get the ball). This team is also adept at boxing out and crashing the glass for rebounds, which isn’t entirely a facet of defense in and of itself, but contributes to the overall effort on both ends of the floor.

So where are they struggling then, you ask. The biggest weakness this team faces is in contesting shots. As soon as an opposing player rises to shoot, the hand of his defender (or hands of his defenders, plural) should be in his face, body draped upon him like Pamela Anderson on Tommy Lee. But the Huskies don’t do this at all. In fact, when an opponent rises for a shot, it’s as if the five players wearing “Washington” on the front of their jerseys simply give up. This phenomenon is part of what helps UW grab so many defensive rebounds. Instead of contesting the shooter, the Dawgs have five men able to grab a misfire. It has a slight positive effect as far as rebounds are concerned, but in the grand scheme of things is a big negative. Why have teams like Arizona and California (all three of our Pac-10 losses) shot the lights out against us? Simply put, it’s because those teams possess good shooters who won’t miss open looks bestowed upon them by a Husky ballclub unwilling to contest their shots.

So that’s the defensive end. On to offense. Here, the Huskies display a tendency to struggle against the zone defense. They approach a zone the same way Oprah approaches a diet; timid, tentative, and if you ask me, kind of dumb. The Dawgs’ basic setup when encountering the zone is as follows: four guards/wings on the perimeter, and a big man isolated underneath doing absolutely nothing. There is no personnel movement. Instead, the perimeter players swing the ball back and forth until a) they either launch an ill-advised three-pointer or b) manage to work the ball inside to their big guy (in most cases Jon Brockman or Matthew Bryan-Amaning) who is immediately double- or even triple-teamed and forced to put up a bad shot or turn a bad pass into a quick turnover.

The Huskies seemingly play into the hands of their opponent when they encounter the zone. It’s why so many teams are content letting us shoot three-pointers. We may have games now where we knock down 50% from beyond the arc, but come March what happens if we only shoot 25% from three and end up losing? Our season could be over because we never learned the right way to attack the zone. How do we solve these two glaring problems? Let’s find out.

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What they can do to improve upon their weaknesses: Again, let’s examine defense first. With relatively undersized guards, the Dawgs are behind the eight-ball in terms of being given a legitimate opportunity to defend a shooter. Because of their lack of height, UW’s backcourt players struggle to get a hand up and alter an opposing player’s shot. That said, it doesn’t mean they can give up on a shot entirely. Husky defenders may not be able to extend a hand up high enough to deflect a shot, but they should be able to get a hand in a shooter’s face, thus making it difficult for the shooter to view the basket. Fact is, they need to do this if they want to prevent teams from shooting the building down. It’s a simple solution for a simple problem, and if this team intends on making a run at (dare I say) the Final Four, they’ll need to get a well-placed hand up on each and every shot from here on out.

The zone is a little trickier, as it’s a foe that has terrorized Washington mercilessly over the years. There are really two surefire ways to combat a zone defense: the aforementioned three-pointer, and dribble penetration. Like I said previously, the three-ball seems to be what’s working for the Huskies at the moment, but it may not last. And in addition to that, they’ve shown a heavy reliance on the trey even when it’s not falling, so that’s a problem.

Dribble penetration, however, should be an effective tool against the zone even when the three is not going down. Lucky for the Huskies, they possess three superior penetrators (make jokes if you wish) in the forms of Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas, and Venoy Overton.

Thomas has flashed his ball-handling abilities by splitting defenders and driving to the hole with reckless abandon on many occasions. He’s even tangled with the zone once or twice, juking his way around three and even four defenders.

Dentmon maintains an ability to knife his way into the lane and put up some weird-looking shots that almost always seem to go down. Even amidst a crowd of defenders, J.D. has shown he’s capable of creating his own shot and sending it into the bucket.

Overton’s strength lies in his passing ability. His speed is an asset that should allow him to drive inside, at which he point he would be best served by deferring to a more adept finisher, or even kicking out to an open shooter.

All three of these players can break a zone down through dribble penetration by themselves, and should be given ample opportunity to do so. Yes, they may inevitably turn the ball over here or there, but the longterm reward for a few bumps in the road could very well come in the form of an extended postseason run.

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I want this team to succeed, you want this team to succeed, Husky fans the world around want this team to succeed. We all agree, we want this team to be successful. In order to do that, though, this Washington ballclub will need to make adjustments on both ends of the floor. Once they can accomplish that, then who knows where their abilities will take them. Sweet Sixteen? Elite Eight? Final Four? Championship? We can only hope for all of the above. Let’s see these Dawgs make improvements and then truly become the team we know they can be.

All images courtesy AP

2 thoughts on “Two BIG opponents the Huskies must overcome”

  1. Ahh…the zone defense. I remember Brandon running the high post and driving/dishing from there. Unstoppable with Tre/Will/Nate on the wings to shoot it.

    Is it wrong that I still sleep with my 2004-05 signed mini-ball?

  2. Write something about our misfortunes when wearing the hideous cream-soda colored jerseys. It must be mentioned. BTW, your word verification just had me type in riddick…yes as in Chronicles of Riddick featuring Vin Diesel.

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