Four weeks ago following consecutive Pac-10 home losses, Washington faced its first real character test of the season, a road trip to Southern Cal and UCLA. Following their second loss to Washington State last Saturday, the Huskies stand at a similar crossroads with the Trojans and Bruins fast approaching. The three-game losing streak has dropped them from the AP Top 10 to sixth place in the Pac-10, with a 5-5 conference record that stands out like a bolded question mark. Can the Dawgs make a late-season run or will they continue to tumble towards Bubbleville?
If the last-minute losses at California and Stanford were frustrating, then the 77-64 setback in the Palouse was surprising, not just because it was the worst defeat of the season, but for the lack of intensity. After taking its customary first-half lead, Washington went without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes spanning the intermission. Unlike the first meeting at Edmundson Pavilion, the Huskies weren't able to mount a serious run and were outscored by 19 points in the second half.
"We didn't come out and play well in the Wazzu game," forward Jamaal Williams said Tuesday. "We had a foul against Cal, we had a foul against Stanford. We're just not doing the smart things right now and I think that's attributed to our youth. We're making some mistakes on the road. It will be good to come back home and finally get some games here."
If the Huskies are to climb out of this latest hole, they'll have to start this weekend. The good news is that the Dawgs turned in what were arguably their best back-to-back games of the season at USC and UCLA last month, sweeping the L.A. schools for the first time in 19 years. The bad news is that both teams put together respectable winning streaks in the interim. Before being upset by Arizona State last Saturday, the Trojans (15-7, 6-5) had won four of their previous five games, while the Bruins (19-4, 9-2) have won five consecutive conference games prior to their trip to the Evergreen State.
"We've got to bounce back," said the mercurial Williams. "We have to come out and play harder. Our backs are up against the wall. We're going to need some victories here, so we've got to try and turn things around as soon as possible."
If the Huskies' focus has wandered at times, the recent results have gotten their attention. Senior captains Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones led a team meeting at the beginning of the week, stressing unity and reminding the squad that the 2003-04 Huskies rebounded from an 0-5 conference start, their last losing streak. They pointed to the overtime win at Oregon State, which sparked a string of 12 victories in their last 13 Pac-10 contests and resulted in a NCAA Tournament bid.
"We need to make sure we keep doing what we do best and not let other teams' game plans mess with ours," said Jones. "We've beaten Gonzaga and UCLA and all these other schools. We know our potential. It's not like we're just trying to sell our team a dream and hope we overachieve."
Coach Lorenzo Romar said he was re-evaluating the starting lineup for Thursday's clash with the Trojans, in a search for the missing ingredient. "When you've lost three games, you look for answers. We're looking for guys that have that spark," Romar remarked. "I'm not exactly sure what will happen Thursday."
Sophomore Ryan Appleby has averaged more than 30 minutes off the bench in the last three games, while senior Mike Jensen has played himself into game shape after returning in late December from the shoulder injury. Whether or not the coach's comments were simply a motivational tool, the Huskies will need to improve in several areas. Their scoring during the losing streak has dropped 20 points per game in comparison to the previous 18 games (87 to 67 ppg) and the shooting slump has been a major culprit, having dropped a corresponding 10 percent (48 to 38 percent). The Cougars held Washington to 23 percent shooting (7-31) in the second half and 32 percent for the game. In addition to missing some short-range looks recently, the Dawgs hit only 7 of 42 3-point attempts (17 percent) versus Stanford and WSU.
The Huskies haven't outrebounded an opponent since their last home game against Oregon, having struggled with big men like Leon Powe, Matt Haryasz, and WSU freshman Aron Baynes, who had 10 second-half caroms. Roy led the Huskies with nine rebounds last weekend, as Williams and Jones combined for only three boards.
As opponents have packed the paint defensively and dropped several players back to prevent easy baskets in transition, the assists numbers have dried up as well. Point guard Justin Dentmon scored 13 points in the first half at Pullman, but hasn't recorded an assist since the Cal game. With rushed shots and limited ball movement, the Huskies tallied only eight assists at Stanford and only six against the Cougars' tenacious defense.
"I feel like we don't have very good chemistry offensively," Roy stated, noting that they're not always hitting the open man. "Coach is trying to build that chemistry. Justin, as a freshman, he's still trying to learn the point guard role. It took Will (Conroy) 2-3 years to finally perfect it and play at the level he did last year. Jon (Brockman) is trying to find his role and Bobby to this day is still trying to find his (on the wing).
"There are times where our offense gets really stagnant and guys take it upon themselves to try and take the ball and create a play," explained Roy, who leads the conference with an average of 22.6 points in Pac-10 games, but has been forced into some ill-advised shots. "Anytime four guys are standing and one guy is trying to make a play, it's going to be tough because the whole defense is going to collapse on him. We just have to get better movement, more penetration and kick-out situations. And really just trust each other. I have to trust these guys to make shots and they have to trust each other to make shots also."
The challenge of snapping out of the mid-winter malaise got a bit easier as Southern Cal will be without guard Gabe Pruitt, who suffered a fracture to his left knee in practice Monday. Pruitt, who dropped 21 points on the Huskies in the second half in L.A., had led the Trojans in scoring six of the last nine games, averaging more than 26 in the last three. Freshman Sead Odzic is expected to start after filling in for Rainier Beach grad Lodrick Stewart, who was slowed recently by an ear infection. Odzic scored a career-high nine points last Saturday on 3-of-5 shooting from behind the arc.
"In terms of SC, obviously Gabe Pruitt is a big part of what they do, probably an NBA player," said Romar, who was quick to note that WSU, Cal and UCLA have all overcome injuries this season. "Teams find a way to get it done."
The Huskies will have to slow Southern Cal's perimeter shooters, Stewart and the oddly-coiffed Nick Young, as well as get some interior scoring. Their starting forwards—Jones, Williams, and Brockman—combined for 45 points at USC, their highest total in Pac-10 action. For comparison, the trio had just 18 points at WSU. The Dawgs emerged from Troy with an 18 rebound advantage, but also coughed up a season-high 28 turnovers versus the Trojans, who are 5-2 on the road.
"We can't count on 46 rebounds again, so we have to cut those turnovers in half from the last time we played them," Romar said.
A victory over No. 13 UCLA Saturday would greatly help the Huskies' chances in the Pac-10 and in any postseason consideration as Washington has slipped—cover the children's eyes—to No. 59 in the latest RPI. The first-place Bruins have found their stride following their first loss to Washington at Pauley Pavilion since 1987, the last year they were swept by the Huskies. Bolstered by the return of senior swingman Cedric Bozeman, they have comfortably handled their conference foes, including a sweep of Arizona, with only a last-minute setback at the hands of No. 10 West Virginia in the last month.
The Bruins' post play is stronger now than in the last match-up as seven-footer Ryan Hollins has returned as the starting center and freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has matured. Hollins scored 12 points in the 84-73 defeat of the Wildcats last Saturday, while Mbah a Moute is averaging nearly nine rebounds a game and scored a total of 29 points in the Bruins' sweep through Oregon two weeks ago. UCLA is 15-1 when they win the rebounding battle, while the Huskies are 1-4 when they lose the battle on the boards.
Washington will need to control guards Arron Afflalo, who had 27 points against Arizona, and Jordan Farmar, who cut through the Huskies for 12 assists in the last meeting. In order to beat the Bruins for the third consecutive time—a feat the UW hasn't accomplished since 1952, John Wooden's fourth season at the helm—Washington will need balanced scoring again. Williams, Brockman, Jones and Roy all posted double-figure points last month and were supported by 20 points in bench scoring as Appleby hit three triples in the second half. Overcoming a 15-point deficit at Pauley on the strength of 16-for-25 shooting in the second half has to instill some confidence going into the nationally-televised clash.
"We really needed those wins (in Los Angeles)," Roy said, recalling the parallels with this weekend. "I think the thing we did in those games that we didn't do in these last three is that we played 40 minutes of basketball no matter if we were up 10 or down 10. At USC we were up like 15 points and we played with the same energy, the same toughness when they were coming back. At UCLA we were down 10-15 points and we put up the same toughness and just played until the final buzzer. I think that's something that we have to get back to doing."
Citing the close contests in the Bay Area and the strong start versus a Washington State team that had lost five consecutive nail-biters, Romar thinks the Huskies aren't far off.
"I'm very optimistic. If in fact the issue is us bearing down and just focusing for 40 minutes, then let's go do it," Romar said of the need to finish games—and the season—in strong fashion. "No reason to panic whatsoever, as far as I'm concerned. I'll take a 16-5 record any day with eight games to go. It's just that we have to make sure from here on out we turn it around."