SEATTLE — After coach Lorenzo Romar tried every tactic he knew to get the 2011-12 University of Washington men’s basketball team to buy into his defensive philosophy, he’s finally found a way to get the Huskies on board.
In 2012-13, UW simply has to play defense, if the Huskies want to have any kind of success.
“We all know that we have to play defense to win because we don’t have as much talent as we’ve had in the past years,” said junior wing C.J. Wilcox, the Huskies’ leading returning scorer. “So we know we have to make up for it. That’s why defense is where most of our focus is.”
Having lost leading scorers Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to early entrance into the NBA, and having been unable to replace them with a single incoming recruit, the Huskies might have to rely on a little different formula this season. And after a few weeks of practice, the defense-wins formula that Romar has always preached seems to be working.
“We’re a lot closer to being the type of defensive team we want to be now than we were at the end of last year,” the veteran coach said last week. “We’re making progress there.”
With a new offensive system and a rebuilt coaching staff that includes a defense-first assistant in Lamar Smith, UW enters the 2012-13 season hoping that a greater emphasis on the defensive end can get the Huskies back into the NCAA tournament.
Whether or not there are still hard feelings about UW being left out of last season’s Big Dance is up for debate, but what no one can dispute is that the Huskies had their struggles on the defensive end — particularly down the stretch.
Wroten, despite his team-high 66 steals, was not always in the right position, while Ross never developed into the shut-down defender Romar envisioned he could one day be.
This year’s Huskies might not have the athletes that some previous teams have boasted, but they do have the commitment to defense and experience in Romar’s defensive system. That might be enough to carry a UW team that’s tall up front but short on premier scorers.
“You’re talking about four guys in the starting lineup that really understand and are committed to our defensive principles,” Romar said, referring to seniors Aziz N’Diaye, Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs, and fourth-year junior C.J. Wilcox. “That, in itself, will make us better in that regard. We didn’t have that last year.”
The Huskies also have some unique size up front, with a possible lineup that could feature N’Diaye and 6-foot-10 Jernard Jarreau in the paint. The pair played together for spurts in the exhibition win over Western Washington, and Romar has left the door open to adding Jarreau to the starting lineup.
“I think we could be pretty tough on the defensive end,” Jarreau said. “We’re long. Everybody’s learned the defensive principles, will be where they’re supposed to be, and everything will just take care of themselves. (Having two players 6-10 or taller on the floor) could be a great threat on defense. Blocked shots, rebounding, et cetera — there are a lot of things we could do on defense.”
Nobody understands this team better than Romar, who has made several changes in recent months in an effort to bring out the best in these Huskies. Having lost out on several recruits like high-scoring guard Mark McLaughlin (he signed with the team, then quit before practices officially began) and incoming freshman forward Anthony Bennett (who signed with UNLV and is considered among the top first-year players in the country), Romar switched to a high-post offense that will create more open looks for shooters like C.J. Wilcox, Scott Suggs and Abdul Gaddy. He reshuffled his coaching staff, adding a veteran strategist in longtime Western Washington head coach Brad Jackson and a young defensive whiz in Smith.
And most of all, Romar has drilled his team on the importance of a defense-first mentality.
“Last year we had two dominant scorers; they could score at will,” said Jarreau, who redshirted as a freshman last season. “This year, everyone knows the defense, so we’ll be in the passing lanes and will know the defensive principles.”
The addition of Smith could help UW’s defense in the long run. Romar has had his most success when turning over the defense to an assistant — first, to Randy Bennett, and then to Cameron Dollar — and over the past two years the staff has coached it by committee.
Last year’s team was particularly inconsistent on the defensive end of the floor.
“At times, we played good defense, but when it came down to it, we didn’t guard all the time,” Wilcox said. “And that put us in a bad position.”
Having averaged 14.1 points per game as a reserve last season, Wilcox is the Huskies’ most obvious go-to scorer. But he wasn’t even named to the preseason All-Pac-12 Conference first or second team, and not a single Husky was mentioned in a recent CBS Sports feature on the top 100 players in college basketball.
With that perception of UW’s talent base, and a focus on defense, this year’s Huskies are definitely flying under the radar.
And that’s just fine with them.
“That’s where we want to be,” Wilcox said. “We don’t want a lot of hype; we want to surprise people. We’ll just do our work behind the scenes and try to make a run for it.”