When Washington entered the 2008-09 season, plenty of questions surrounded a Husky team trying to rebound from an eighth place finish the season prior. Perhaps the biggest one was their ability to play defense, especially with such an undersized lineup. Under head coach Lorenzo Romar's tutelage, Washington has consistently been able to put the ball in the net. However, last season they allowed more points then they scored in Pac-10 play.
Despite being one of the more prolific scoring offenses in the league, last season's Huskies finished eighth in the conference in scoring defense, ninth in field goal percentage defense, and last in blocked shots.
But now that the dust has settled on a wild Pac-10 season, and Washington is left sitting atop the standings, it's no secret how they got there. The Huskies have adopted a tough as nails attitude that all starts with defense. They have shown mental and physical strength that has allowed them to grind out victories, winning three Pac-10 games in which they shot under 38 percent from the floor.
On the year, Washington finished second in scoring margin with a plus 9.9 points per game average. They also finished second in three-point percentage defense, second in forced turnovers, third in steals, fourth in field goal percentage defense, and sixth in blocked shots. Combine this with an offense that led the league at 79.2 points per game and you have a team with its eyes on a run in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think that with everybody trusting each other on defense, it makes us that much stronger," explained senior guard Justin Dentmon. "When somebody breaks you down, you know someone will be behind you to help out."
"We are not on top [of the Pac-10] because of our offense, we are at the top because of our defense," continued Dentmon. "We missed bunnies and lay-ups here and there, but we wear teams out on defense. A lot of players in this league play 40 or 39 minutes per game. We noticed this, and that's why we try to pick them up at full court and try to wear them down, because we have more legs and more depth."
The Huskies have relied on a deep bench all season to overcome a perceived lack of star power. Washington was only honored with one player of the week award, and no one was named to the Pac-10 All-Defensive Team, with only Venoy Overton getting honorable mention votes.
"I think we have a lot of people on our team that are deserving of it, but that is just a testament to what our deal has been this entire year," expressed senior Jon Brockman about the Pac-10 All-Defnsive Team. "We don't have the player of the year, we don't have the defensive player of the year, we do everything as a group. That is just a testament to how our team has played this year, and we work together to get things done as a team and not just put it on the shoulders of one player."
Washington has indeed put all egos aside and won as a team, but Overton has been the clear catalyst for their defensive awakening. The sometimes demonstrative sophomore point guard has earned a reputation as one of the most hated defenders in the league, because of his ability to get into guard's faces from one end of the floor to the other. He has earned the nickname of Venannoying for his ability to annoy opposing players, and disrupt opponent's offensive flow. It's because of this coach Romar believes he could have, and perhaps should have been added to the Pac-10 All-Defensive Team.
"I would have hoped Venoy Overton would have been on the all-defensive team," explained Romar, "I think he really came into his own and really began to make an impression down the stretch, and maybe that's why he didn't get more votes. But I think at this point, he'd have to be one of the top defenders in this league."
So how does Overton feel about the snub?
"Some coaches don't like me," he said with a laugh. "I'm an harasser, I'm loud and I'm always talking, so that could play into it a little bit. Maybe I waited too long to really turn it up, but it's no biggie at all."
However, if opposing coaches really don't like Overton, then maybe he's doing his job as a lock down defender.
"Oh yeah, of course," he continued. "If people don't like you because of what you're doing on the court, I think that's a good thing."
When the season began, it appeared this motivated and team inspiring Overton may never surface. After an impressive freshman campaign that saw him start 26 games, while averaging nearly five points and four assists, coming off the bench as a sophomore was a hard pill to swallow.
"He started as a freshman, and going into this season, you could make a case that he's going to be your point guard of the future, because he had a very good freshman year," Romar said. "He had games where he played Jared Bayless head up and did a great job. In New York, he had as good of a tournament as any freshman in the preseason NIT, and yet he comes in this year and he's coming off the bench. I know it bothered him early, but there's so many examples of guys sacrificing for the team. There came a point when he looked forward and said, 'I'm going to bust my tail and try to help this team in any way I can'."
It wasn't easy, and understandably so, but Romar and the rest of the coaching staff got through to Overton and helped him understand just how important his role on the team is.
"We tried to help him understand that even though he wasn't in the starting lineup, he was just as valuable as anyone on this team, and we needed him to play well," said Romar. "[We told him] we will not be as good of a team Venoy, if you don't bring it, and play up to your capabilities. If he doesn't go out and do the things he began doing in the latter part of the season, we would not have won the conference."
Overton's play has been infectious, and set the tone for the Huskies in the second half of the season. He's forced the players around him to step up their defense, and has given Washington an identity. Dentmon, an excellent defender himself, is appreciative for Overton's contribution and helps to keep him motivated.
"I definitely feed off it because when he pressure the ball it gives me more time to get into the passing lanes and steal the ball," Dentmon said of Overton's defense. "I think if we didn't have him and Isaiah out there pressuring the ball, our defense would get lackadaisical. With them doing that, it messes up everyone else's offense."
"Overton and me talk about who is going to get the most steals. Sometimes he beats me and sometimes I beat him, but it is fun to compete on defense like that. I know some players compete with scoring but we compete with who will get the most steals. I think that is how far this team has come."
Perhaps no player has benefited more from the team's defense first mentality then freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas. When Thomas came into the league, he brought with him a reputation as a scorer who played little defense. But after leading the team in scoring as just a freshman, he also earned the respect of his teammates for his defensive tenacity.
"I think Isaiah had heard so much about how he was a poor defender and there's no way he's going to defend, said Romar. "I think he's done a tremendous job of trying to learn to be a better defensive player. I think coming in from day one, he had made his mind up that 'I'm going to play defense, I'm going to learn to play defense'. I think each individual put it upon himself that he's competing for a spot, I'm going to have to defend. But it certainly helps when you have someone as gifted as Venoy in guarding that ball.
After being left off the Pac-10 All-Defensive Team, Overton appears extra motivated to prove people they were wrong.
"That just means I just have to step it up a little harder in the tournament," said Overton.
A scary thought for opposing offenses.
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