by: Griffin Bennett
With the Pac-10 season over, it’s always easy to forget how the Huskies arrived where they are today. With so many ups and downs this year, it’s interesting to remember back at what we were thinking and how our predictions panned out. The victory over USC that clinched the Pac-10 title on Saturday was something that many people prognosticated, but the journey is always more interesting than the destination.
With the Pac-10 tournament coming next week, Husky fans can watch for pure enjoyment as their 10th ranked Dawgs are all but assured of a top 4 seed in the NCAA’s. Looking back, the expectations for this squad were set sky high even though they lost Quincy Pondexter off of a sweet-sixteen team. How did it all happen? Let’s take a look back into the amazing year that was.
How It Happened:
Following the humbling losses to Kentucky and Michigan State in Maui, no one expected the Huskies to win the rest of their non-conference schedule after that. The home win over Texas Tech avenged the overtime loss from last year, but the most impressive win was Isaiah’s 24 point, 7 assist, 3 steal outing at Texas A&M. After a scary 2 point win over Nevada, the Huskies were 9 and 2 heading into the Pac-10 season with the only significant injury being Overton’s strained hamstring that just wouldn’t go away.
You couldn’t have asked for a harder opening two games of the season than going to L.A. with a target on your back. Beating USC on Thursday was nice, but having Justin Holiday roll is ankle in the process left UCLA’s front line looming large on New Year’s Eve. That loss was a bitter pill to swallow. Rebounding has been a work in progress all year, and losing Holiday’s 6.5 average in that UCLA beating was key. Although, I’m not sure it would have mattered in the end.
The Huskies got healthy as they beat up on the Oregon schools at home, and dished out a bay-area smack down to Stanford and Cal in back-to-back weeks. With Gaddy averaging 11.2 points and 4.4 assists, it was easy to see why he was an All-American prospect and potential Pac-10 Comeback Player of the Year. The two-headed monster of IT and Gaddy had become a flawless machine that chewed up and spit out opposing guard duos. Even ESPN was starting to see something special happening out on the West Coast again.
Continuing down the Pac-10 road, the Huskies got their first look at the Arizona team that everyone was worried about. Unfortunately, those worries were warranted as the Huskies lost their first home game of the year to a team that just seemed to have no weakness that night. The Wildcats shot, rebounded, and defended incredibly well and not even MBA had an answer for Derrick Williams. The Dawgs picked themselves up and rebounded with a win over Arizona State on the following Saturday. Halfway through the Pac-10 season, the Huskies were 15-4 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-10.
The front court problems that had been anticipated in the pre-season had only showed their ugly head once during the UCLA loss due to Holiday’s injury. MBA’s 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a game seemed to hide any flaw in depth that Romar’s team may have had. All of the worry coming out of Maui about MBA’s play seemed to quietly fade after he consistently posted impressive numbers. Aziz N’Diaye was so night-and-day with his play that people started tweeting “Dr. Jekyll” or “Mr. Hyde” during games based on how he was playing. Some nights he would destroy with almost getting a double-double with rebounds and blocks, and others he would have more fouls than boards. It’s been a work in progress, but regardless, I don’t think this team would be where it is now without him.
Darnell Gant has been the biggest surprise of the season. His newly found shooting stroke has added a new level to the Husky offense when he his playing in the paint. Teams started to follow him out to the perimeter to defend, which opened things down low for everyone else. While losing his starting job to Scott Suggs in the pre-season, he seemed to pick up the slack when someone was having an off night. He found himself in the starting line-up more often than not all year after proving himself on the court. His junior year has looked like Holiday’s of 2009/10.
After destroying the Cougars in Pullman to start the second half, February seemed like a countdown to the rematch with Arizona on the 19th on ESPN. As the Huskies piled up wins against the Oregon schools (including a 33 point blow out on the Duck’s new court), Romar continued to talk about “one game at a time” while the comments on Montlake Madness continued to focus around the “unofficial Pac-10 title game” in Tucson.
A shaky home series against the Bay Area schools, while ending in wins, made Husky Nation nervous with the Arizona road trip the next week. The Huskies were 20-4 and 10-2 in the Pac-10 while being ranked 15th, while the Wildcats were 21-3 and 10-2 in the Pac-10 being ranked 14th. It was set-up to be an epic match-up with title implications. Then it all fell through as the Huskies fell to Arizona State in the trap game on Thursday. The team just didn’t seem ready to play as the Sun Devils came out with fire after beating Arizona the week before. As we saw all year, the combination of an off-shooting night and the lack of clutch rebounding spelled disaster as Sun Devils won 76-72.
With panic taking over, the Huskies title hopes seemed to be slipping through their fingers. The continued criticism of Romar’s lack of a half court offense seemed to only be supported by each loss. The talk on ESPN turned from “watch-out for Washington” to “Arizona is back”. It was a brutal Friday and Saturday waiting for the game to start. Everyone feared Derrick Williams who was averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds a game and was the leader for Pac-10 Player of the Year. Even I had doubts that the Huskies could pull off the upset.
Man was I wrong. I don’t know what happened to MBA, but something finally clicked between the ASU and UA game. His 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks led the Huskies to one of the most thrilling victories in recent memory. The 88-83 win over the Wildcats in Tucson on national television reinvigorated a seemingly lost Husky team. The MBA haters were silenced in one game, as even his defense on Williams (12 points, 6 rebounds, fouled out) was spectacular. The Huskies and Wildcats were tied at 11-3 heading into the Pac-10 home stretch.
While MBA was the talk of the town, the guard play has truly been the gem of the year. The early injury to Scott Suggs opened up the competition for the 2 guard spot which C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross quickly took advantage of. Wilcox led the Pac-10 in 3 point FG% with an astounding 46%. He was consistently the first guard off the bench and seemingly made every open three he was given. Ross showed flashes of brilliance all year while struggled to be consistent enough to warrant extended time. He seems to have the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster.
Isaiah Thomas may have taken a back seat in scoring from the previous year, but his 15.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game were equally important. The most impressive part of his game was realizing that he was not always the best option to take a big shot late in games. His assist to Holiday late in the Arizona game for a three pointer was a testament to his self-awareness. The 2010/11 Husky team wouldn’t be half the team it was without Thomas.
After healing from his aggravated hamstring injury, Venoy Overton made up for lost time. I can honestly say that I have never seen a defender do what Venoy has done this year. He mastered the ability to force a ball handler to switch hands and then attack his blind side for a quick steal. It’s like watching Mozart creating a symphony. I don’t think we will ever see a better on-ball defender in our lifetime.
Bringing it Home:
The celebration in Tucson continued the next week after the Huskies embarrassingly blew-out Seattle U in one of the “purplest” away games ever in Key Arena. With three seemingly must-win games left, all at home, Husky nation quickly became silently nervous during the 5 day wait until the Sunday match-up against WSU. Shockingly, on Saturday, the Huskies were given the break that they were waiting for: Arizona lost to UCLA. Now with a one game lead for the outright title in hand, the next 3 games grew even larger. Luckily, Reggie Moore’s pre-game trash talk had more bark than bite as the Huskies easily dispatched the Cougars by 14 points.
The last week of the season had finally arrived, but the L.A. schools were no easy assignment. USC had been tough all year and Alex Stephenson was now healthy, while UCLA still had their title hopes alive if a few things went their way. UCLA was first up on Thursday, and it was a game to remember. With 8 lead changes and 12 ties, I was a nervous wreck for 2 straight hours. With four minutes left, Reeves Nelson picked up his 5th foul and the Huskies never looked back after going on a 13-4 run to end the game. Ending UCLA’s title hopes was almost as filling as the cheeseburgers that the Dawg Pack brought to taunt former Kentwood star, Joshua Smith.
With the title on the line, all that stood in their way was a USC team that was still suspended from post-season play. From the opening tip-off in-front of a raucous crowd, you could tell that the Trojans weren’t emotionally up for the game the same way that the Huskies were. With two separate runs of 21-6 and 14-3, the Huskies cruised to their second Pac-10 title in three years. Watching Romar cut down the nets with Holiday leading the dance party was a great scene that I’ll never forget.
Player of the Year: Derrick Williams (Arizona)
Freshman of the Year: Maurice Jones (USC)
Defensive Player of the Year: Venoy Overton (UW)
Most Improved Player of the Year: Abdul Gaddy (UW)
Coach of the Year: Mike Montgomery (Cal)
With a number one seed in the Pac-10 tournament in hand, I would not be surprised if the Huskies wanted to make the push for a number one seed in the Big Dance. In my opinion, teams like ASU, UCLA, and Arizona have far more to play for than the Dawgs and it will probably show on the court.
The true test will be in the NCAA Tournament for this team. No one will be happy with anything less than an Elite 8 finish, which may be unfair. With selection Sunday a week away, soon we will know what our path holds. This team has proven that it can win late in games including tough road wins. Tests against Kentucky, Michigan State, UCLA, and Arizona have prepared this Husky team for any situation that may arise. The circumstances for reaching the true goal, a Final Four, have never been better. My Husky pessimism refuses to let me get ahead of myself, but on paper this team looks the part of a contender. If any city/fan base needed a magical run, it’s us. Bow Down.