Shortly after the Washington Huskies returned from Stanford and California at 3-4 in the Pacific-10 Conference basketball race, their much-anticipated NCAA Tournament hopes stood on wobbly legs.
But after victories over Arizona State and Arizona, the Bay Area nightmare of two losses looks like nothing more than some beneficial pause before restoring the quest of being selected for the NCAA Tournament.
Now at 5-4 in conference play - 12-5 overall - the Huskies sit alone in sixth place. They are one game behind Stanford, California, Arizona and Southern California, all jammed in a four-way tie for second place at 6-3. With 10 games remaining, including six at home where the Huskies are 9-0, the schedule favors UW ever so slightly. The visitors are Cincinnati (non-league), Washington State, Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC. All those teams, with the possible exception of WSU, will be jockeying for an NCAA berth.
Tradition says the NCAA will invite four teams from the Pac-10. Recent history says the league-leading Bruins (7-2) will be difficult to overtake in the second half of the conference race. Over the last two seasons, UCLA was a combined 17-1 in the second half of the league, winning the conference both years. In the past five seasons, the Bruins are 37-8 in the second part of the season.
What it adds up to is that each game over the next five weeks is critical to UW’s postseason hopes. Below is an assessment of the Huskies at the midway point of their Pac-10 season.
Scoring punch - The Huskies will never win any scoring contest because coach Bob Bender is building the foundation of the program on defense. But no one in the Pac-10 has a better scoring duo than Mark Sanford (17.0 points a game) and Todd MacCulloch (15.1). Sanford is a crossover dribble away from gaining elite status around the country, and UW is 11-1 when MacCulloch, shooting 73.2 percent from the field, scores in double figures.
Depth - Bender has a solid rotation. The bench begins with junior Chris Thompson, a starter at the point for 15 games, then moves quickly to 7-1 sophomore Patrick Femerling. Freshman Deon Luton is athletic, but a streaky shooter, while redshirt freshman Chris Wolcott is smooth and improving.
Defense - The statistics might say differently as the Huskies have allowed 76 points a game. Oregon’s Jamal Lawrence (27 points), WSU’s Ike Fontaine (31), Stanford’s Brevin Knight (26), Cal’s Ed Gray (28), and Arizona State’s Jeremy Veal (30) have all enjoyed offensive outbursts. But opponents are shooting just 44.8 percent from the floor against the Huskies. UW rarely gives opponents good looks at the basket, and of the group mentioned above, only Knight said he didn’t have trouble scoring.
“The defense is good, but not where it needs to be,” Bender said. “We come up with defensive stops when we need them, but I don’t think we’ve done it consistently. That’s something we have to stress and demand.”
Maturity - The road swings through Los Angeles and the Bay Area were disappointments, but both times the Huskies came back to win at home. After the Los Angeles trip, Washington went on a three-game winning streak with victories over Oregon State, then-No. 17 Oregon and Washington State. And last Sunday against Arizona, Washington held off numerous late charges by the Wildcats.
Turnovers - The Huskies lead the league in turnovers, averaging 20.4 a game. They tied a school record with 31 in the victory last Thursday over Arizona State. In losses to USC and Cal, UW had a combined 53 turnovers.
“We have to cut down on unforced turnovers,” Bender said. “If you turn it over 15 times, 10 of those can’t be unforced.”
Developing an additional scoring threat - After Sanford, MacCulloch and senior Jamie Booker (11.6 points a game), the Huskies’ offense becomes uncertain and at times suffers through prolonged scoring droughts. Junior point guard Jan Wooten, who recently moved into the starting lineup, can play both guard spots and is hitting 52.4 percent of his 3-pointers. But sophomore guard Donald Watts might be the answer. He’s averaging just less than 10 points a game, and is shooting just 38.1 percent from the field. Watts dropped hints against Arizona that he might break free from his slump, scoring 15 points on 6-for10 shooting. “Donald came out like Donald is capable of playing,” Bender said.
Rebounding - With their three-guard attack, the Huskies are vulnerable to bigger teams, but they still are outrebounding their opponents (36.9-34.6). Washington has size with MacCulloch (7.7 rebounds a game), Sanford (7.4) and Femerling (4.2), but Bender’s concern is on the offensive glass. USC grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against the Huskies and Oregon 13.
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