BY Bob Sherwin 07:20AM 02/17/2011

Huskies’ Swat Squad: Intimidators in the paint

UW on record-setting pace for blocked shots; an unheralded defensive element

Washington forwards Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Darnell Gant are huge components in the Huskies' shot-blocking Swat Squad / Drew Sellers, Sports Press Northwest

If there’s one behavior pattern that’s consistent in athletes from sport to sport it’s that no one wants to play the fool. Athletes simply do not like being embarrassed on their field of play. At all cost, they avoid looking awkward, clumsy or gawky.

It’s why deceptive lefty pitcher Jamie Moyer has carved out a 24-year baseball career with his anti-velocity deliveries. He understands and exploits the hitter’s prideful tendencies. He knows that they hate swinging at air so far ahead of his slothballs. He’s in their heads before even taking the mound.

It’s why holding was devised in football, because defensive backs despise being burned deep. Nothing makes them look more foolish or subject to more ridicule than trailing a touchdown catch by a dozen yards.

In basketball, it comes down to the blocked shot. It not only serves as an overt rejection of one’s game, it’s a personal wounding.

“My coach in high school said it’s the intimidation factor,” said UW junior forward Darnell Gant, on advise from legendary Crenshaw High Coach Willie West. “He used to tell me when the game started, goal-tend the first shot, no matter what it is. It makes people not want to take that shot again. It makes people not want to go into the paint.”

A shot block means, as the crowd derisively chants, ‘you’ve been swatted.’ In today’s game, guys hate that. They hate being exposed, made to appear incapable or incompetent.

“It’s more now because of television, much more than my era,” said UW assistant coach Paul Fortier, who played for the Huskies in the mid-80s. “You can see everything on TV. You have the top 10 plays every night. A big-time block gets optimum play. Of course, kids don’t want to be in the opposite end of that. So it changes things around.”

Washington has done a remarkable job this season in exploiting that human frailty. The Huskies are blocking shots this season at a pace unmatched in school history. The Swat Squad has blocked 123 shots this season. The school record is 139 set in 2002. Even if they play a minimum of seven more games (likely more), they are on a pace to finish with 159 blocked shots.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” said Gant, who has 10 blocks, 33 in his career here. “We have a lot of good athletes on the team. Our athleticism and timing allow us to do so. That’s (possible record) is a huge compliment to the team and our defensive structure.”

If not a secret defensive weapon, a block shot is at least an unheralded one that is a integral part why the Huskies (17-7, 9-4 in the Pac-10) head to Arizona this week with a chance at second straight conference title. They play Arizona State (9-15, 1-11) Thursday then first-place Arizona (21-4, 10-2) Saturday.

“Many times we’re at our best defense than we’ve ever been and that’s due to the shot-blockers,” UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We have our big guys in Matthew (Bryan-Amaning) and Aziz (N’Diaye) but there’s also Gant and Justin Holiday. You know we took five charges and blocked 11 shots against Cal last week. That’s 16 times guys were going to the basket that you prevented. That’s pretty phenomenal.”

The 6-foot-9 Bryan-Amaning leads the Swat Squad with 35 blocks, 139 for his career. He needs four more to pass Todd MacCulloch for second on the career list. Seven-footer N’Diaye has 32 in an average of just 17 minutes a game. The 6-6 Holiday is third with a career-high 21, 55 in his career.

“You can see guys change their shots during the game, kind of hesitant sometimes,” said Bryan-Amaning, after a block. “It changes the dynamics of the game. It also gives the guards better opportunity to put pressure out on the ball.”

N’Diaye said that “protecting the rim is my job. I think it’s like protecting my house back home (in Senegal) whenever I block a shot.”

Most blocks are not the result of one-on-one isolation. That can lead to foul trouble. The majority come from the side when a secondary defender flies in from weak-side help to swat the ball. Gant and Holiday, in particular, feast on those.

“Washington is really athletic, big and strong,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “Then you have guys like Holiday who comes from the weak side. He’s another athlete. Then Gant coming off their bench. A lot of shots get changed that aren’t blocked because players are worried about getting their shot blocked.”

UCLA leads with 141 blocked shots, an average of 5.6 per game, while UW is second at 123. Even with such venerable big men as Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, Kevin Love, Jelani McCoy and the O’Bannon Brothers, the Bruins, like UW, are on a record pace.

Howland, with his natural coaching perspective, doesn’t understand why there’s such a stigma attached to a shot swat.

“It’s amazing kids today worry so much about getting their shot blocked, like it’s such a big deal,” he said. “As long as you get the ball back, it shouldn’t be. But today you have so many kids brought up to believe that getting your shot blocked is really a terrible thing. It’s just part of the game and you just keep playing.”

A blocked shot obviously prevents a basket. A block also can be intimidating and momentum-changing. However, if the offensive team retains possession, that’s counter-productive.

Crenshaw coach Willie West always wanted his players to understand that. He used to stop practice after a player made a theatrical block into the seats and ask, who was the greatest shot-blocker of all-time, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? Guys generally favored Wilt because of his stylistic, dominant play.

West disagreed. When a ball is swatted out-of-bounds that gives the offensive team 100 percent retention while keeping it in at least gives the defending team a chance at it. He reasoned that Russell was the best because he tried to keep his blocks in play or directed toward a teammate. Not coincidentally, Russell won 11 NBA championships. Wilt won two.

“I’ve told Matthew, ‘I love blocks. But when you throw that thing way out of bounds – and I know it’s a great play and looks great – but that’s an offensive rebound for them. They get the ball back,’ ” said Fortier, who works with the big men. “If you can keep it in bounds, at least we have a chance to recover it. And a lot of times the defense gets the ball.”

There is not a lot of difference between Washington and Arizona, the league’s most dominant teams. Amazingly, they have the same conference-leading shooting percentage at 48.1. They are first or second in three-point shooting percentage, in scoring, in scoring margin and rebounding margin. It may be that if the Huskies can pull off the upset in McKale, a blocked shot or two will provide the subtle difference.


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