SEATTLE — Even in the past when the Washington Huskies were pretty good defensively, their fast-paced offense always seemed to get the attention.
It’s easy to overlook the defense when future NBA players such as Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Quincy Pondexter, Spencer Hawes, Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross are cycling through your program.
But the reason Washington has turned around a stumbling start this season — and won 10 of its past 12 games — is because of the effort and improvement being made on the defensive end. After Wednesday night’s 64-54 victory over Colorado, the Huskies are 4-0 in the Pac-12 and are allowing just 56 points per game in conference play.
It’s early and the Huskies have yet to see any of the Pac-12 squads ranked in the AP Top 25 — Arizona (No. 7), Oregon (21) and UCLA (24) — but UW coach Lorenzo Romar has his team on pace to be the finest defensive squad in his tenure.
“It’s both our attitude and us figuring things out,” Washington point guard Abdul Gaddy said. “We take pride in our defense, we don’t like when people score on us. We’re really starting to jell, which is the main thing.”
Romar has preached defense since coming to Washington and it has often been a struggle. Yet this group has figured out the principles needed to be successful.
For the season, the Huskies are giving up 64.9 points per game, which would be the lowest in Romar’s tenure by nearly five points. Teams are shooting just 41 percent from the floor this season and just 37 percent in Washington’s four conference games. The Huskies have held seven of their past nine opponents under 40 percent shooting. They’ve accomplished that in each of their first four conference games, only the second time under Romar that the Huskies have held four straight opponents under the 40-percent mark.
Now in his 11th season, Romar has never had a team that has allowed less than 66 points per game in Pac-12 play or lower than 42 percent shooting. Even in their best seasons, when Washington reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament — 2005, 2006 and 2010 — the Huskies allowed around 70 points per game.
The Huskies’ current style of play might be a little ugly when compared to Washington teams of the past, but Romar doesn’t mind.
“You can color it any way you want to color it,” Romar said. “I just know that when you go out and you play two games in a row and you have single-digit turnovers, you hold four teams to under 40 percent from the field, you out-rebound three out of the four, you’re beginning to do things right.”
The defensive improvement this year has many layers, and it starts at the other end of the floor. Washington made the switch in the offseason to a high-post offense. It was a choppy transition at the beginning of the season, so much so that Romar reverted to the motion offense for stretches. But it’s become more efficient of late. The net result of running an offense that requires more passing, more precision, is that the Huskies put up fewer shots and run more time off the clock.
Washington is attempting seven fewer shots per game compared to last season. In turn, games are played at a slower pace and Washington is defending for fewer possessions.
Additionally, the Huskies have figured out how to use their length to cause defensive headaches. The Huskies are not a team filled with towering bodies, but guards C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs are 6-foot-5 and 6-6, respectively, with long arms and the ability to make passing lanes shrink.
Then there is 7-footer center Aziz N’Diaye.
N’Diaye has improved his lateral speed and has become very good at coming from the opposite side of the lane to alter shots. N’Diaye has 10 blocks in the past four games and he’s stayed out of foul trouble.
“We always knew we could play good defense, and we came into the season saying that that is what we needed to do,” Wilcox said. “It just took some time to get through our heads that that is what we needed to do and we’re starting to learn that, and get better game by game.”