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Breaking down the Huskies: Q&A with UW Dawg Pound

What to expect from first-place Washington

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a three game losing streak, the Arizona Wildcats (14-8, 5-4) desperately need a win and some momentum, especially after assistant Mark Phelps was placed on administrative leave.

A win over the Washington Huskies (18-4, 9-0) would instantly turn around Arizona’s luck and put them on a path towards a potential first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.

To find out how likely that is to happen, we talked to Andrew Berg of UW Dawg Pound in order to get the scoop on Washington.

Here’s our Q&A:

Washington is on fire and looks unstoppable right now. What makes this team so strong?

The Huskies have been on quite a run lately and a hot topic in Seattle is what it means to be 9-0 in the Pac-12. The Huskies largely won the non-conference games they were expected to win and lost those they were expected to lose. Almost every top team in the conference struggled before entering Pac-12 play. So we are left wondering whether UW is the best of a bunch of bad teams or a team that’s actually good.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Huskies wouldn’t be 9-0 in a conference like the ACC, but they’re also playing better than the team that lost to Gonzaga, Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Minnesota. The improvement has come from vastly improved three-point shooting, progression from key bench players, and an extremely disruptive defense. If they maintain those characteristics, they are probably one of the best 20 teams in the country. If they revert to what they were for the first month of the season, they’re probably outside the top 40.

Being coached by a Jim Boeheim disciple, UW uses zone defense. What makes the Huskies’ zone so potent?

Hopkins borrows from Boeheim in many ways and also has some of his own contributions to the zone. One similarity is in the types of players Hopkins targets- he loves long-limbed athletes who interfere with passing lanes. Hopkins inherited Matisse Thybulle, who has been a remarkably disruptive force, but he brought in the likes of Naz Carter and Hameir Wright on his own. Both sophomores are important role players who block shots, tip passes, and cut down passing angles.

There are also some distinctions between the Hopkins and Boeheim zones. Hopkins is more willing to extend the zone to overload the strong side of the court. You will notice the baseline wing defenders cheating up to contest threes and the top zone defenders picking up ball handlers outside the three-point line. That variation makes the defense more susceptible to skip passes and back-cuts, but few teams have been able to consistently take advantage this year.

Hopkins is also more willing to play small, at least with his current personnel. When Noah Dickerson is healthy (a big question going into this game after he sprained his ankle Saturday vs. UCLA), he is the biggest Husky on the court for about 10-15 minutes per game when neither Wright nor Sam Timmins play as a true center. Those lineups give UW more floor spacing on offense, but they do not feature a true rim protector on the back line, which can create opportunities for penetration.

Who’s the player to watch for Washington?

Jaylen Nowell is Washington’s best player and maybe the best in the conference. Nowell had an excellent freshman year and has come back stronger this year in almost every respect. He is shooting more threes and getting to the line more often as a percentage of his overall usage, he’s shooting much better from outside (35% vs. 45%), and he has improved his play-making for his teammates. As the season has progressed, he has become the primary offensive initiator, even though he’s not a natural point guard. The evolution has moved senior combo guard David Crisp off the ball, where he has thrived with more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Nowell leading the offense has cut down somewhat on Dickerson post-ups. Dickerson has an old man’s back-to-the-basket game and he is prolific at drawing fouls. As a secondary offensive option, it’s a great change of pace.

As good as Nowell is offensively, Thybulle impacts the game just as much at the other end. Thybulle is coming off of consecutive seven steal games. He is among the conference’s all-time leaders in career steals. He averages over two blocks per game despite being 6’5”. He has freakishly long arms that help him a great deal, but he also has excellent timing. He is a talisman for the way Washington plays.

What would you consider Washington’s biggest strength? How abut biggest weakness?

Washington’s biggest strength is its defense, especially its ability to generate deflections and contest shots. The Huskies are first in the conference in blocks, steals, forcing turnovers, and points per game. They’re among the best in the country in forcing turnovers and effective field goal percentage defense. They are also first in the conference in defensive efficiency. In Pac-12 play, they have shot 42% from three-point range, which has turned the offense into a relative strength, as well.

The Huskies’ biggest weakness is the lack of a true point guard. Nowell has improved markedly, but the offense can go stagnant when threes aren’t falling. The Huskies also struggle to break on-ball pressure and can turn the ball over too much. Like many zone teams, the Huskies give up quite a few offensive rebounds. When opponents force turnovers and get out in transition, it prevents UW from setting up its zone, which negates a major strength.

Of course, if Dickerson misses this game or is hampered by his bad ankle, his absence becomes the team’s biggest weakness. Without him inside, the Huskies lose the high percentage shots he gets at the rim and the free throw line, and also lose the fouls that he generates more efficiently than anyone.

What’s your score prediction?

The Huskies have played reasonably well on the road lately with wins over Oregon and Oregon State. Considering Arizona’s recent struggles, I would slightly favor the Huskies to win with a score around 68-65. If Dickerson cannot play, I would expect Arizona to win by a similar margin.