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Washington Husky Huddle for Monday April 2nd 2012 (Part One)

I’d like to start by saying thanks for all of the great times covering this year’s Husky team. It was a fun year with a lot of spectacular moments. I thought that coach Lorenzo Romar and his staff did a particularly good job. I was very happy to see them appropriately acknowledged when Romar was awarded the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award. Washington won the Pac-12 title out right for the second time in the past four seasons, though only the third time in the past 60 years. Husky guard Tony Wroten Jr. extended his family’s outstanding Husky legacy (his dad, Tony Sr. played on a number of prominent UW football teams in the early 80’s), by being instrumental for the 2011-12 Dawgs in that conference title.

Wroten was also awarded the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award and it wasn’t even a close race. Tony was also voted first team All Pac-12, along with sophomore guard Terrence Ross and that duo, along with inspired performances from a number of Huskies made for a highlight filled and anything but dull season. Percy Allen of the Seattle Times did a nice job on Thursday of identifying the highlights (and lows) of year. The Dawgs were extremely young, averaging 1.2 years of experience up and down their roster and as a result, were a tough group to count on emotionally. It was a roller coaster ride, resulting in close losses to Duke and Marquette in NYC and a blow out loss at Saint Louis in November and a another pasting by South Dakota State at home in December.

Other than those games, the Dawgs were surprisingly consistent, as they would lose close games to decent teams on the road through out the year, but to Romar’s credit win almost everything at home and beat the teams that they should beat on the road in league play. Despite being able to come back to look as if they had them in control, UW would consistently grasp games, then let them go. Whether it was Duke, Marquette, Nevada (OT), Cal (the Dawgs only home conference loss, when sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox was out with a stress fracture in his femur), UCLA and in the Pac-12 tourney against Oregon State, UW fell behind early, clawed back to look as if they had their opponent on the ropes and couldn’t finish.

This is common with such a young team, almost regardless to the talent level, but Romar was able to grind out just enough wins (6-3 on the road and 8-1 at home in league play) to come in first by a game over 13-5 Oregon and Cal. The Dawgs were
beaten soundly by the Buffaloes in Boulder CO and by the Ducks in Eugene OR, but other than those two games, looked like the better team in the rest of their league and post-season games. They just didn’t always play the better game, but they did remarkably well for such a young group. With senior guard Scott Suggs out for the year (to return for his senior season in 2012-13) and Wilcox slowed by the injury (which he played through for the rest of the season), the Dawgs were really thin as well as young.

It was because of remarkable performances by Ross, Wroten and Wilcox and great strides by junior point guard Abdul Gaddy and junior post Aziz N’Diaye, plus tremendous leadership and post play by lone scholarship senior Darnell Gant, that UW succeeded. The Dawgs swept Arizona and WSU and bounced back from the doldrums of being left out of the NCAA Tournament, to win three straight at home in the NIT to gain another shot in the NIT Finals in Madison Square Garden. Though their ride ended in yet another contest where they fell behind, had to claw back to gain control and then couldn’t close, in a 68-67 overtime loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, it was still a very positive year for the UW program.

They beat arch-rival Oregon, who were in my opinion the 2nd best team to them in the conference this season, to earn that second Big Apple trip. The Dawgs were the best team in a down year in the conference, but they in no way deserved to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. It was fun for the Dawgs to get a return trip to NYC, after the week long trip in November, but in the NIT semis against Minnesota, the Huskies produced almost a carbon copy of the disappointing trip to LA that yielded a NCAA at-large bid killing first game loss to the Beavers.

It was another rodent that gnawed the sleepy Dawgs into submission, as the Gophers out worked UW and left them fighting for their lives. Romar, Gaddy and others said all of the right things in press ops building up to the game in NY, but
once again the Dawgs came back to take control, after falling way behind, yet couldn’t finish. This year’s UW team could literally do anything they wanted to, if they wanted it, but it seemed at times they felt that they were entitled and didn’t do what it took to earn. Very typical immature behavior.

Romar talked a lot prior to the game Tuesday, not only of his friendship, but of his respect for Gopher coach Tubby Smith and the UW team should have realized that it was more than just lip-service and coach-speak. Many UW pundits, including, chose the Dawgs to win, but Ryan Divish of put it well when he described the loss.

“Perhaps it was fitting that the Washington Huskies’ season ended this way – a lethargic start, a furious comeback and a disappointing loss. After all, those were constant themes throughout the season.”

What was most difficult for UW fans to watch was the poor defense in the first half, where Minnesota scored 20 of their 38 points on lay-ups and dunks, most of them wide open. Minnesota outscored Washington 44-28 in the paint overall for the game. Ross scored 12 in the first half, as the Dawgs one bright light, other than Gant’s buzzer beater three that brought UW to being only behind 12 at the break. In the second half the Dawgs clawed and scratched their way back, despite a solid effort from the Gophers. In the final minute of regulation, on a very physical in bounds play, Wilcox grabbed a loose ball caused by tough on ball defense from
Wroten and tied the game. After a solid defensive play from the Dawgs, Wroten missed a wild looking three at the buzzer. In the overtime though, with the Gopher’s big guns in foul trouble and all of the momentum heading their way, UW just couldn’t keep their focus. Romar talked about what happened in the OT, when he spoke to the media after the game.

“A turnover, difficult shot and then to have a couple of defensive lapses. It always comes back to defense.”

Ross finished the game and his Husky playing career with 21 points and six boards, while Gant had a near double/double with 12 and nine. Romar said after the game that “At the end of his career, suddenly Darnell Gant is playing as good of basketball as he has in his career”. Gant showed that not only is he playing well, but he showed to me that he is on top of the mental side of the game. Gant astutely compared this year’s Dawgs (after the game to the media), to his last three, all of which were NCAA Tournament teams that won at least one game in the dance.

“We wanted to bring back something special, but that didn’t happen. We were too immature at times this season. That’s the difference between this team and those other teams. Those teams knew how to win and we never really learned how.”

Abdul had another encouraging game (as he appears to be primed for a brilliant senior season) with nine points, three boards and five assists, but his turnover in the OT was a killer (three overall). Wilcox gave his all in the season finale, with 12 hard fought points, as the Gophers did a great job of limiting and altering his looks. N’Diaye was rendered useless by the Gopher’s style of play and scored no points in only 21 minutes of the 45-minute game. Aziz had only five boards, but the Dawgs scrapped their way to win the battle on the glass 43-40, after their ferocious second half comeback. Ultimately a putrid 37% from the field to 44% for Minnesota was UW’s undoing. A big part of the Huskies poor shooting, was a horrible night from the field from Wroten, despite his late game defensive heroics. Tony went 4-16 from the field and was especially unable to buy a bucket in the first half, when the Gophers (like the legendary pool shark “Minnesota Fats”) put UW behind the proverbial “8-ball”.

Even on a tough night like this, where he also had no assists, Wroten had three steals and five boards. A photo gallery from AP and a YouTube highlight reel gives an idea as to the tough competition that Minnesota brought and the frustration that UW showed in their body language. Despite their disappointments, UW fans had plenty to be proud of I feel this season. Though his last game was a goose egg, Aziz was named by Bleacher Report last Monday as one of the top-25 seniors going into next year. Though Ross announced on Sunday that he will enter the NBA draft and sign with an agent and Gant’s leadership and energy will be sorely missed, nothing suggests to me that the Huskies will not be a better team next season and much more likely back in the “Big dance” come “Selection Sunday” 2013.

The challenges now are replacing Ross and Gant and possibly Wroten, who as of yet has not announced his intentions, but I have a good feeling about the UW staff’s ability to bring in talent that is out there and interested, as well as the what
remains on their roster. I also feel good about this team, as Gant put it, “Learning to win”. Next year will see the return of Suggs, who looked really improved before his injury in late summer and has drawn high praise from many in practices of late. In a Wednesday tweet by Jon Rothstein of MSG Network in NY, Scott was nicely

“Scott Suggs looked terrific at Washington’s practice yesterday in NYC. Huskies will still be OK even if they lose Wroten + Ross.”

Freshman guard Andrew Andrews is another player who impressed me in summer workouts and has drawn high praise for his play in practices all season. Rothstein also talked about Andrews in a Tuesday tweet from NYC.

“Remember the name Andrew Andrews. Washington red-shirt guard will have an impact in the Pac-12 in 2012-13”

On Thursday ran a feature on Andrews that pointed out that his steady and solid approach will help the Dawgs a lot, but that his impact will likely not be as great next year if Wroten stays another year. I feel that Andrew will relate more to Gaddy’s minutes than Wroten’s in either case. This allows Gaddy to not have to play so many minutes. Andrews is a more complimentary back-up to Abdul than Tony, though if Tony comes back and his off-season work continues that could change. Look for Andrews to log 10-15 minutes, even if Tony stays, with Abdul logging a fresher 25-30 instead of 35-40. If Wroten leaves, look for Andrews to do about the same, plus a few important minutes at the off-guard position.

Wroten works best in that off-guard position in UW’s system, much like his cousin Nate Robinson did, with Tony’s friend Will Conroy at the PG spot. Another good example of that dynamic is the role that Isaiah Thomas played before Abdul was
hurt in 2010-11 and Thomas had to be moved to the PG spot. Tony is a potential PG in the NBA game, but at UW he is best at the off-guard, as it is a system that prefers off-guards with PG skills, who can also aggressively look to score.

Fellow red-shirt frosh Jernard Jarreau is a guard in a 6-foot-10 frame. Because of a growth spurt, this potential giant prospect brings the skills of a guard to a huge length that could be devastating in a number of ways, as he fills that frame and develops his game. According to numerous reports, he has not lost those guard skills, but also shows an outstanding ability to learn post skills. Besides rising sophomore Hikeem Stewart (who played a deep reserve role this season, but has a lot of potential), there is yet another guard. Besides Gaddy, Andrews, Wilcox, Suggs, Jarreau, Stewart and possibly Wroten, a former WSU commit, Nevada signee, Baylor signee, Seattle U player and the leading college scorer in the nation (in all levels of competition) in 2011-12 is a very likely possibility. I’m not talking about another five guards, to go with the other 6-7. I’m talking about 6-foot-6 Mark McLaughlin.