BY Bob Sherwin 10:17PM 11/21/2010

Maui Invitational will define this Husky team

Can it mature and improve as well as the 2005 team?

Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas says "my guys will be ready'' for Maui Invitational. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

This Washington Huskies basketball team, as deep, experienced and talented as it is, can’t set the standard. That’s already been set – by the 2005-2006 squad.

We’ve already heard the comparisons, and will all season. That team was the most acclaimed in the school’s ‘modern’ history. It had shooters, Brandon Roy, Justin Dentmon, Ryan Appleby, a fierce rebounder in Jon Brockman and a tenacious defender in Bobby Jones. That team went 29-6, the best win percentage since 1938. It won the Pac- 10 Tournament for the first time. It earned the only NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in school history and reached the Sweet 16, losing to No. 4 Louisville.

But what brought that team into the spotlight and made it believe it could achieve great things was capturing the championship at the faraway Great Alaska Shootout. The Huskies beat Utah, Oklahoma and No. 19 Alabama over three exhilarating days.

That was the springboard as they would lose just four more games over the next three months.

This year’s team compares favorably with that team. Coach Lorenzo Romar admits he may have more shooters, Isaiah Thomas, Abdul Gaddy, Justin Holiday, Scott Suggs, Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilson, Darnell Gant – just to name a few. But they aren’t where they need to be as a rebounding and defense team.

Now just like that 2005 team, this is the time to define the 2010 team. Beginning Monday, the 17th-ranked Huskies (2-0) will play in the faraway Maui Invitational against a more potentially formidable threesome than the Great Alaska Shootout five years ago. They open with Virginia (2-1), coached by former WSU coach Tony Bennett.

If things break right, the Huskies could then play No. 12 Kentucky (2-0), a captivating matchup with slippery Wildcat coach John Calipari, who many believe stole away UW recruit Terrence Jones. Then if the Huskies manage to win that one, they’ll play in the title game against likely No. 2 Michigan State (2-0), which has a fairly clear path to the championship.

Now that’s a troika. It’s hard to imagine three games (in three days) that have been more challenging in UW history.

But whatever happens, this tournament will go a long way in defining this year’s Husky team.

It will be over by Thanksgiving, just four days from now. What can we expect? Here’s a look at where the Huskies are going and what to look for in Hawaii:

DEEP IN THE SHOT CLOCK: What Romar wants to see is poise mixed with purpose during every possession. This is one of the fastest team’s he has put together and, because of that, opponents will try to slow the Huskies down with zone defenses.

The Huskies are not as effective in the half court as they are on the run. So Romar wants to see how his players “play beyond 15 seconds of the shot clock. Up until this point, we have not been able to do that.”

Defensively, he wants his players to sustain their to be aggressiveness and harassment throughout the 35-second shot clock. That requires a commitment to the team’s defensive principles, taking charges, weak-side help, switching, holding positions.

Offensively, it’s the same thing. The team must be patient for 35 seconds, if necessary, and work the ball around efficiently with the idea of a high percentage shot at the end.

“Teams are too good defensively, they’re going to force us to play in the half court,” Romar said. “Playing in half court, we have to be able to continue to move and stay spaced, continue to work aggressively for a good shot, and not be impatient and just throw one up there. That’s going to be the trick.”

ROSTER DEPTH: The Lahaina Civic Center, where the tournament will be played, is a sweatbox. It’s a glorified high school gym. The fans are on top of the court. It’s intimate, loud and stifling.

“With our depth, we would think we would be able to withstand the sweat box, three days in a game-to-game turnaround,” Romar said.

Not only can the Huskies go at least 10 deep, but there is not a significant talent dropoff during the substitutions.

Many of the Huskies also have been challenged in similar fashion by the Pac-10 Tournament, albeit not in such over-heated conditions.

The two spots where the Huskies don’t have adequate replacements are defensive specialist Venoy Overton and 7-foot center Aziz N’Diaye. Romar will need to spot them so that, if needed late, they will be available.

Kentucky, by the way, is challenged in the fact that they have just 10 scholarship players. But Calipari insists he has no depth issues.

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: UW fans are hoping for a second-round matchup with Kentucky – in the championship bracket. The Huskies have to beat Virginia while the Wildcats face Oklahoma in the first round. Kentucky should win.

“To me, it’ll mean a whole lot,” Husky guard Isaiah Thomas said. “That’s the talk of the whole tournament basically.”

No matter what the facts are, Husky fans blame Calipari for stealing 6-foot-8 forward Terrence Jones out from under them. Last spring, he had verbally committed to UW then had a change of heart. He contacted Calipari (some believe the other way around) and asked to play for the Wildcats.

This came just after another potential UW recruit, 7-footer Enes Kanter, suddenly found himself in Calipari’s recruiting clutches. (Kanter has since been declared ineligible. Karma).

“We have to focus on Virginia, but if that game (Kentucky) was to happen it would be really special,” Thomas said. “My guys will be ready for that one.

“We’ve all been through that situation. It’s a hard decision. At the same time, if you’re going to pick somewhere, know you’re going to go there. But no hard feelings toward him. We’re still cool friends. He did what he had to do.”

Jones’ best friend is Terrence Ross, the Husky freshman who honored his verbal commitment to play for UW.

“He has moved on, we’ve moved on now,” Romar said. “If he could have done it again, he probably would have handled it a little different. You do not get to practice these things. There’s no manual on how to do it. He was a little confused and did what he did. That’s where he wanted to go.

Romar added, “Calipari didn’t do anything wrong in that situation.”

That’s still up for debate on Montlake but there is no doubt that this potential matchup will be one of the most intriguing this season.

ASSORTED SORDID ISSUES: Results are mixed from the first three games (including the exhibition) that the Huskies played.

This team can hoist it – 63 three-point attempts in the past two games. It has interchangeable parts and the reserves may have better shooting strokes than the starters. Like that 2005 team that stepped up in Alaska, it’s going to be great theater to see how well this team performs against enhanced competition.

“I hope we do not become a team that lives and dies by the three,” Romar said. “Take opportunity threes, but play inside out, penetrate and kick, transition kick ahead. That’s a positive for us.”

Defense has been spotty at times, especially with Overton still hurting (groin, tailbone). He is the defensive inspiration for this team. He gets it done but he also can guard only one player at a time. He needs consistent support.

Rebounding is another area of concern. The Huskies were out-rebounded in two of their three games. At this point, there is no dogged rebounder who the team can rely on so it has to be gang rebounding. The hope is that forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning can collect the bulk of the rebounds inside with the help of 7-foot N’Diaye. But N’Diaye has to learn to avoid the dumb fouls and stay viable for the full 40 minutes. He’s made progress.

“Our main focus is probably just rebounding,” Thomas added. “We got talent. We’re good on defense. We can shoot really well. The main thing is rebounding, playing the right way and playing consistent.

It’s going to be hard playing three games in three days. We’re ready for the top talent and we’re going it to win it all.”


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