Ordinarily, I try to spare Basketball Prospectus readers my commentary on my alma mater, the University of Washington Huskies, and save that for my personal sports blog. However, when Ken Pomeroy suggests on Twitter to watch the end of UW's game, I feel like it's appropriate to make an exception. What Ken and his legions of followers--at least those without DirecTV--saw was one of the early season's biggest upsets. Visiting Albany used a driving layup by Mike Black with 3.7 seconds remaining to hand the Huskies a 63-62 defeat, just their second against a non-conference opponent at Hec Edmundson Pavilion since 2008. The win was the first by the Great Danes over a major-conference foe since their reclassification to Division I during the 2000-01 season.
The end of the game provided plenty of drama. After Andrew Andrews made two free throws to give Washington a 60-58 lead with 1:03 to play, Albany went for the three rather than a two that might have tied the game. Senior guard Jacob Iati missed from beyond the arc, but secured his own offensive rebound and set up freshman Peter Hooley for what we can safely say was the biggest three-pointer of his career, given it was just his second.
Down one, the Huskies took their last two timeouts consecutively with 29 seconds remaining. A broken play resulted in center Aziz N'Diaye, a career 41 percent foul shooter, heading to the line for two attempts. He missed both but was saved by teammate Abdul Gaddy, who secured the offensive rebound and dribbled into the go-ahead floater with 18 seconds left on the clock. The Great Danes calmly dribbled to midcourt to call timeout and draw up a play. Wanting to switch screens and avoid a mismatch, Romar pulled N'Diaye in favor of a four-guard lineup. That proved problematic when Black beat his defender off the dribble and met no resistance in the paint, scoring easily. Out of timeouts, the Huskies had to rush the ball up the court, and Gaddy missed a 30-footer at the buzzer as the crowd went silent.
The decision on N'Diaye was a difficult one. Albany had successfully exposed the stout shot-blocker by pulling him out on the perimeter and putting him in pick-and-rolls, which might have been the strategy had N'Diaye remained on the floor. Even without him, Washington should have been able to contest Black's shot. After the game, Romar lamented the inability to contain Black off the dribble. The clearer tactical mistake down the stretch was Romar using both of his timeouts, something that happened in a loss at Texas A&M two years ago. Then again, with or without a stoppage, the Huskies would have gone the length of the floor in less than four seconds to win.
The simpler solution was to avoid a close game with Albany in the first place. On paper, this didn't look like a trap game for Washington, which earned a solid 85-63 victory in Sunday's season opener against a higher-rated Loyola (Md.) team. The Great Danes were reasonably competitive in an 82-60 loss at Ohio State on Saturday but were one of the nation's worst defensive teams a year ago, ranking 316th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com.
Though Albany took a four-point lead to the locker room, the concern at that point still appeared to be the margin rather than whether the Huskies would win. After rediscovering their shooting touch, Washington took control with a 14-4 run over the first 4:39 of the second half and appeared out of the woods.
Things turned when Great Danes coach Will Brown went to a zone defense that the Huskies were unable to crack. From the 13:24 mark to the 2:31 mark of the second half, Washington made just one field goal. At the other end, Albany was slowly finding an answer to the Huskies' superior size. The shooting of Iati, who made half of his 12 three-point attempts, was a major factor. Washington couldn't risk leaving the sharpshooter alone for a second, which opened up the floor for his teammates. When the Great Danes started bringing N'Diaye out of the paint, they had their solution. Albany scored seven times on eight possessions. Ordinarily, Romar would have gone zone to keep his rim protector down low, but Iati's shooting made that too much of a risk. So by the time the Huskies made adjustments on offense, they were playing from behind and it was too late to keep the game from going down to the buzzer.
As unexpected as Tuesday's outcome was--KenPom.com gave Washington a 91 percent chance of winning--it's too early to panic in Montlake. Games like this happen, and they're often forgotten if they result in a close win rather than a loss. Later in the evening, UCLA needed overtime to escape UC Irvine's upset bid by an 80-79 final. And plenty of teams lose their exhibition games to even lesser D-II competition. Just last year, Arizona fell to Seattle Pacific and ended up having a decent, if underwhelming, season.
It's not too early to recalibrate expectations for anyone who expected the Huskies to compete in the Pac-12 after winning the conference's regular-season title a year ago. Besides the improvement in Tucson and Westwood, this Washington team can't match the standard set over the last four years, when the Huskies have won either the Pac-12 regular season or conference tournament. After losing first-round picks Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the NBA, Romar's crew is no longer that talented.
Washington's biggest issue might be depth. When juco transfer Mark McLaughlin left the team over the summer, the Huskies were left with an open scholarship. Two other scholarships went to transfers who must sit out this season (Perris Blackwell and Giles Dierickx), leaving the team with 10 active players on scholarship. That number dropped to nine last week, when a patella tendon injury sidelined post Shawn Kemp, Jr. for 6-8 weeks. Take out Scott Suggs, who left early in Tuesday's game with a head injury and did not return, and Romar had just eight realistic options available. Of them, sophomores Martin Breunig and Hikeem Stewart have yet to prove worthy of extended minutes, meaning Washington's rotation has already shrunk to just six reliable players.
Frontcourt depth could work itself out if Kemp is able to return for the conference schedule and Austin Seferian-Jenkins rejoins the team after he finishes up his record-setting sophomore season as a tight end on the football team. The perimeter rotation can't withstand any injuries. As it is, Andrews may be the only reserve behind starters Gaddy, Suggs and C.J. Wilcox. Stewart has been reluctant to shoot during his rare appearances, giving opposing defenses a break. During his 12 minutes of action on Tuesday, the Huskies were outscored by 11 points.
After losing the two players who created most of the team's offense last season (Ross and Wroten had combined usage rates of 55.6 percent), finding consistent sources of scoring will also be a season-long struggle for Washington. Without Kemp, N'Diaye is the team's only post threat, and he is a viable option only against much smaller opponents. Even then, his free throw shooting limits his utility with the ball in his hands. The Huskies don't have any players who can consistently create off the dribble, though Gaddy has done more playmaking as a senior and redshirt freshman Andrews has shown promise in that regard.
That leaves Washington depending on using energy to set up easy scores in transition or from offensive rebounds. Besides that, the Huskies need jumpers to fall. Wilcox, the team's leading scorer, is an outside shooter first and foremost. So too are three-point specialist Suggs and, to a lesser extent, Gaddy. On Tuesday, Washington generated good looks for Wilcox that just wouldn't go down until the closing minutes. He finished with 11 points on 14 shooting possessions. Most of the time, Wilcox will be better, but there are tough nights like this ahead for both Wilcox and the Huskies as a team.
For a comprehensive guide to the 2012-13 college season, check out College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, now available for .PDF download.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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