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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Huskies have plenty of Players of the Game

Washington guard Matisse Thybulle (4) celebrates with teammates after an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

With 16 minutes left in the game, UW big man Noah Dickerson scored to put the Huskies up by 15 and 10,000 fans up on their feet. At that point, the contest felt over, so I started looking for a Player of the Game.

But I couldn’t find him.

Jaylen Nowell had a game-high 10 points. David Crisp had seven points and a game-high three assists. Matisse Thybulle had eight points and a game-high four steals. Dominic Green had four points and a game-high five rebounds. Dickerson had six points but was drawing double-teams in the post that let the offense flow.

Picking a game MVP was impossible at that point. It was also typical.

A tip-off at Hec Ed doesn’t just signify the start of a basketball game, it signifies the start of a mystery. When the Huskies take the floor, you never know who’s going to give the signature performance.

Sometimes it’s Nowell, the guard who came into the game averaging a team-high 15.5 points along with 6.2 rebounds. Sometimes it’s Thybulle, the forward who’s on pace to become the first player in NCAA Division I history to finish a season averaging three steals and two blocks. Sometimes it’s Crisp, who entered the game shooting 42.4 percent from deep in Pac-12 play and is basically playing without a backup. Sometimes it’s Dickerson, who dropped 21 points against USC and once drew 13 fouls.

Nahziah Carter has had two 18-point games. Huskies coach Mike Hopkins dubbed Dominic Green “the Monster of Montlake” after he hit a combined seven 3-pointers vs. Stanford and Cal.

It’s not rare to get a mixture of contributions from players at the college level. But it’s unusual to see it this diverse.

“One of our mottos is be ready for anything,” said Thybulle after his team’s 64-55 win over Colorado on Saturday. “All of our guys are looking to step up. Every game it’s a different guy.”

The variety is responsible for the Huskies surging to 22-5 overall and 13-1 in the Pac-12. It is why they are one win away (or one loss by Oregon State or Arizona State) from clinching the outright conference title with four games remaining. It is why they are 14-0 at home, and why eight of their last nine wins have come by at least nine points.

“That’s balance,” said Hopkins. “It’s not just that we had three guys in double figures, but you look at the stat sheet and you see a lot of guys with six points, or five points or seven points. That’s when you know you have a good team.”

Expectations were high for this program after Hopkins took over a team that went 2-16 in conference two seasons ago, then 10-8 the following year. Those expectations have been officially exceeded.

Often the difference in games comes in a manner you might not look for on the stat sheet right away. At one point Saturday, Washington had 14 points off turnovers to Colorado’s zero.

What the Huskies are doing defensively (particularly Thybulle) can’t be ignored. People were skeptical of the zone when Hopkins first took over, with the Huskies coming into the game giving up 64.7 points per game – .2 points more than Oregon for the best in the Pac-12 – nobody’s skeptical now.

So what’s next?

A conference title seems inevitable at this point, as does the Huskies’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011. Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi had Washington as a seven-seed in his latest projection. And though UW hasn’t been in the AP Top 25 since the beginning of the season, its return is looking more and more like a reality.

The big question, of course, is whether the Huskies’ accomplishments are embellished due to the fact that they are in the Pac-12. If Washington wins the conference tournament, it’s quite possible it will be the only Pac-12 team to go to the Big Dance.

In the meantime, that doesn’t seem to matter to Huskies fans, who sold out Hec Ed once again. They know they’re going to get a show every night. They just don’t know who’s going to star in it.