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Originally published January 14, 2014 at 6:11 PM | Page modified January 15, 2014 at 7:37 PM

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UW men’s basketball: Change in defensive style has led to turnaround

Washington got off to a rough start this season, particularly defensively. Then coach Lorenzo Romar decided to pack the middle and try to deny drives to the hoop. So far, so good.

Seattle Times staff reporter


UW @ California, 8 p.m., ESPNU

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BERKELEY, Calif. – Brad Jackson can admit it now, the Huskies were desperate and running out of ideas after a horrendous start.

The Washington men’s basketball team (11-6) has seemingly corrected the defensive flaws that threatened to ruin its season. The Huskies are tied for third in the Pac-12 entering Wednesday’s 8 p.m. game at California (12-4, 3-0) with sole possession of second place on the line.

Two months ago, the outlook was vastly different for the Huskies following blowout defeats in three of their first five games.

“You’re searching, you’re looking and you’re scrambling for ideas as to why you’re not playing the way you’re capable of playing,” said Jackson, a UW assistant coach. “It was some long days, for sure.”

The Huskies returned home from a November trip to New York after being outclassed by Indiana and Boston College in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Losing is one thing, but getting embarrassed on the biggest stage in basketball was something coach Lorenzo Romar couldn’t accept.

Romar identified the problem: Washington’s defense was woeful. Handcuffed by the new defensive rules, which outlaw hand-checking, the Huskies couldn’t keep opposing guards away from the basket.

They were also short and short-handed.

Jernard Jarreau, their 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, 6-7 reserve forward Desmond Simmons sat out after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and 6-9 reserve forward Shawn Kemp Jr. was dealing with a thyroid condition.

Romar took the unconventional approach and started four fleet-footed guards around burly 6-9 forward Perris Blackwell and tried to outscore opponents in an up-tempo game.

However, foes feasted on the Huskies.

Indiana overpowered them in the middle, converting 34 of 53 shots inside the arc and draining 31 of 36 free throws for an 18-point victory.

The next day, Boston College guards routinely darted into the lane and passed to open players on the perimeter for an 11-for-25 three-point barrage in the 11-point win.

At the time, UW opponents averaged 87 points and shot 51 percent from the field, which ranked 346th out of 351 Division I teams.

If he was going to salvage the season, then Romar had to go against his conventions and change Washington’s defense. Since his arrival 12 years ago, he has implemented a harassing, swarming defensive attack that forced turnovers, which fueled a fast-breaking, high-scoring offense.

Washington’s aggressive, ballhawking defense had become its trademark and a staple during its three NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances, three conference tournament titles and two league regular-season championships under Romar.

But Washington’s defensive statistics were atrocious at the start of the season and he had to do something.

Romar had run out of options. He couldn’t make roster moves and the Huskies weren’t going to grow.

“The intent was to survive,” he said Monday on his weekly radio show. “That’s why we changed it because we were doing such a poor job of keeping teams out of the paint. So we tried to come up with ways with our lack of size to keep teams away from the rim.”

Romar huddled with new assistant T.J. Otzelberger, UW’s defensive guru, and consulted with assistants Raphael Chillious and Jackson.

They decided to scale back and pack the middle. Rather than look for steals on the perimeter, they’re intent on denying drives and inside passes.

“It seems like a simple thing, but it’s not,” fifth-year senior co-captain C.J. Wilcox insisted. “Every fall, spring and summer we’ve been drilled on a certain way to play and then — BOOM! — one day overnight we change everything.”

Jackson added: “It may seem risky, but what’s even more risky is doing what you’ve been doing and hoping the results will get better.”

The defensive improvements took time. The Huskies surrendered 79 and 89 points in the next two games — both wins. They lost to then-No. 10 Connecticut 82-70.

Romar insisted Washington had improved defensively, but the players finally bought in after a 1-1 trip during the opening week in the Pac-12 season when the Huskies shut down Arizona State for a 76-65 win and held No. 1 Arizona to 71 points in a loss.

“We can play defense with anybody,” Blackwell declared proudly after the loss to the Wildcats.

In the past 12 games, opponents are averaging 70.2 points and shooting 45.5 percent from the field.

In the past, UW players were instructed to fight through picks, which forced a big player to defend a smaller player, often resulting in scoring opportunities.

Because UW starts four guards, Romar decided to switch on ball screens. So if someone sets a pick on Wilcox, then Andrew Andrews or Nigel Williams-Goss — both similar size — can pick up the opposing player without creating a mismatch.

Romar said 6-5 guard Mike Anderson is the key to UW’s defensive success “because he has long enough arms and is strong enough to defend the post player. But yet at the same time he can switch onto anyone else.”

Washington, 5-1 in the past six games and 9-3 after its 2-3 start, has seemingly discovered a winning defensive formula.

“There appears right now to be a certain level of consistency,” Romar said. “If it continues, we can be very successful this year.”

Repelling the ‘3’
It’s a fairly small sample size but Washington is allowing Pac-12 opponents to shoot just 12 percent on three-pointers.
Team 3FG-AttPct
Arizona State 2-14.142
Arizona 2-9.222
Utah 1-15.060
Colorado 1-12.080
Totals 6-50 .120

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