SEATTLE — Even the return of 7-foot center Aziz N’Diaye won’t keep the University of Washington men’s basketball team from rolling out its four-guard lineup again tonight. The Huskies expect to go with four guards for the third consecutive game when they play host to Cal State Northridge, with N’Diaye coming off the bench.
The smaller lineup has brought out the best in freshman guard Tony Wroten Jr., who has blossomed as the up-and-coming star everyone expected him to be at UW.
“I don’t think there’s a freshman guard in the country right now that’s doing more than him,” coach Lorenzo Romar said.
The question is how much better the new lineup makes the Huskies.
Since Wroten replaced N’Diaye as the starter, go-to scorers Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox have quietly faded into the background. Wilcox has shot just 30 percent and averaged 9.5 points in the past two games, while Ross, trying to fill the role of power forward in the new-look lineup, was plagued by foul trouble and scored just six points in Sunday’s loss to South Dakota State.
Along the way, the Huskies (5-5) barely escaped with a win over UC Santa Barbara, got beat down by the SDSU Jackrabbits and allowed 86 points per game.
In both games, Wroten emerged as UW’s go-to scorer while showing the confidence and aggressiveness that most of the Huskies seem to lack on the offensive end. But there were times when his penetration skills left Wilcox and Ross, the team’s top two scorers for the first eight games of the season, lingering around the outside without much chance of getting the ball.
“He is so good at getting in the paint, when (defenders) collapse on him, I think there are times when he needs to get the ball to the open shooters,” Romar said. “He knows that. He realizes that.”
Romar spent a good part of his Tuesday press conference defending his flashy freshman guard while pointing out that Wroten is just 10 games into his first season of college basketball. The coach evoked memories of UW star Isaiah Thomas as a freshman, saying Wroten is already way ahead of where Thomas was in terms of passing.
Having Wroten in the starting lineup, Romar said, gives UW an offensive catalyst that has at times been lacking.
“He’s shooting almost 50 percent from the field, and he’s getting fouled seven times a game,” Romar said. “Man, that’s putting a lot of pressure on the defense. So do you want him not to shoot? Not when he’s shooting 50 percent.
“But what adjustment Tone needs to make is when they collapse on him, to pass the ball out to the open man. But Tony’s not by himself. We watched a lot of film yesterday, and we saw that we missed the open man quite a bit — our team is missing the open man.”
Often, that means getting the ball to Wilcox and Ross. Wilcox was the team’s go-to scorer early in the season, when the sophomore showed that he had added a driving-to-the-lane game to his stellar outside shooting. Ross came into the season as the most likely candidate to replace Thomas as the go-to scorer, yet has disappeared for stretches this season.
“We told our team, not just our guards, we can’t go through anymore games where Terrence Ross gets that (few) shots,” Romar said. “There’s no doubt about it: Terrence Ross is a phenomenal scorer. And he needs to get more shots.”
Using Ross in the four position means the 6-foot-6, athletic string-bean gets to use his driving skills against typically beefier opponents. It’s not always the best matchup on the defensive end, but Romar believes Ross can be dominant when he’s being aggressive in the lane.
“Terrence Ross, to me, is unguardable when he goes down there,” Romar said. “When he catches it down there, and he has space, rarely does he not score or get fouled. It’s just a matter of being able to find his way and get down there.”
Ross hasn’t always shown the confidence to demand the ball inside, which has rendered him invisible at times in the UW offense.
“Terrence hasn’t played much in that spot. As a result, in the last couple games, it’s kind of hurt him,” Romar said. “He scored 14 in the second half against Santa Barbara, but we had to run specific plays for him to get the ball, which is probably what we have to do when we run that lineup to get him some shots.”
Getting N’Diaye back means the Huskies will be able to move Ross to the wing more, and go back to a more traditional offense in the process. Romar hopes to have his big man back from a knee injury tonight, although N’Diaye probably will play limited minutes off the bench in his first action since Dec. 10.