Can it last?
That’s the question Washington must answer after once again relying on a small lineup featuring four and five guards to chase down the Eastern Washington Eagles and sprint to a 92-80 win Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena.
The Huskies depart this week for New York’s Madison Square Garden where the stage is bigger and the competition is tougher than it has been so far.
Washington plays Indiana (4-0) on Thursday in the 2K Sports Classic semifinals. This isn’t the same Hoosier team that posted a 29-4 record last season and advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. That team was led by a pair of first-round NBA draft picks in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Indiana doesn’t have the star power it once did. IU relies on an ensemble cast in which five players average 10 points, including its trio of starting forwards.
Just three games into the season, the Huskies have gotten a lot of miles out of the small lineup, which has essentially replaced the high post offense. When UW floods the floor with five guards, its as if the Huskies have reverted to their old motion offense that relied so heavily on dribble penetration and kick-out passes for three-pointers on the wings.
The Lilliputian lineup was no match against 7-6 UC Irvine center Mamadou Ndiaye, but it helped the Huskies recover from double-digit deficits against in-state rivals Seattle University and Eastern Washington.
“We ran out of gas,” EWU coach Jim Hayford said. “Coach Romar said, ‘We’re going to go with five guards and get into them.’ That dialed up the pressure and we didn’t have an answer.”
Trailing 64-53 with 13:22 left, freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss took over and scored nine of his team-high 22 points during Washington’s decisive 22-6 run.
He capped the spurt with a dribble drive layup over 6-7 Eastern forward Venky Jois despite being fouled. Williams-Goss sank the ensuing free throw, which gave UW a 75-70 lead with 7:38 left.
There’s a lot to like about the Huskies (2-1).
— They’re an excellent free-throw shooting team that’s converted 78 percent of its attempts, including a 31-for-34 performance on Sunday. They were 33 for 41 against Seattle U.
— They have an established star in C.J. Wilcox and a strong supporting cast in which four players (Williams-Goss, Perris Blackwell, Andrew Andrews and Darin Johnson) have scored at least 16 points in a game.
— The Huskies have rebounding (Mike Anderson) and scoring (Johnson) options on the bench.
— And Washington has just 10 or fewer turnovers in every game.
On the other hand, the Huskies are still very much a work in progress.
— Their perimeter defense still has difficulty containing quick guards like EWU’s Tyler Harvey, who scored 28 points.
— Down two injured forwards, UW is going with Blackwell and Shawn Kemp Jr. on the front line. They’re the only big men in the rotation and Kemp has scored just three points in the past two games.
— With a guard at the high post, the offense doesn’t work the same.
— And yet Romar noted the most troubling aspects with the Huskies is the team’s inconsistent performances, which includes several minutes when the team plays without a sense of urgency.
“When we’ve put forth the effort, we’ve done a decent job,” Romar said. “When we haven’t, we’ve looked putrid. That’s something you can control – your effort. Our guys recognize that.”
MORE NOTES, QUOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
— Williams-Goss clearly won MVP honors. He finished with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and three steals in 35 minutes. He did his best work inside, scoring on running, teardrop floaters.
— Not sure if Wilcox can afford to be so patient in the future. He had just five field-goal attempts in the first half. That’s not enough. Wilcox should average 8-10 shots each half. He’s too good of a scorer not to shoot. Wilcox can benefit more than anyone from the new defensive rules because he’s quick enough to force fouls and he’s a career 82 percent shooter at the line. He was 7 for 8 on Sunday and finished with 15 points. He had eight rebounds and three assists in 35 minutes. Wilcox also helped hold Harvey to eight points in the second half.
— Blackwell has a tough job anchoring UW’s defense in the four-guard lineup. The way UW’s defense works, he needs the Huskies to keep opposing guards out of the lane. Blackwell’s forte isn’t being a rim protector. He’s a strong rebounder who had 11 against Eastern, six on the offensive end. He’s also an offensive threat capable of scoring 16 points in 31 minutes.
— Johnson and Andrews each converted 4 of 10 field goals, made all of their free throws and missed all of their three-pointers. Johnson had 12 points, Andrews 11.
— Anderson fouled out after 16 minutes. Before leaving, he finished with seven points and six rebounds. Anderson also has a tough job in the four-guard lineup because he’s often defending taller post players.
— Hikeem Stewart came off the bench and gave UW a lift with spirited defense, five points and two rebounds. He was the only player who made a three-pointer. He also sank a mid-range jumper. Still, Stewart needed to recognize the tenor of Sunday’s game. While the Huskies were attacking the rim, he was firing from perimeter. Granted, he was taking open shots. But in today’s NCAA, a contested layup is more valuable than a open three because the referees are likely to call a foul.
— Kemp has to find a way to be effective. The high post position doesn’t appear to be suited for 6-9 forward who is UW’s second-best post scorer after Blackwell. The Huskies collected 48 rebounds Sunday and Kemp didn’t get one in 19 minutes. Still, he could find a role as a rim protector. Against Eastern, he had two blocks.
— Gilles Dierickx played two scoreless minutes.