|The emergence of C.J. Wilcox and the return of Scott Suggs has keyed Washington's hot start. (US Presswire)|
Washington was a difficult team to figure out before the season started. The Huskies missed out on the NCAA tournament a year ago despite winning the regular-season title in the Pac-12.
Then the Huskies lost their top two scorers, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, to the NBA. A middle-of-the-pack finish in the league seemed like a fair projection, especially after a home loss to Albany in the second game of the season.
Two months later, and suddenly Washington is 4-0 in the Pac-12 -- after winning its first three conference road games for the first time since 1912.*
"We had some key injuries early in the year, and we just couldn't quite mesh," coach Lorenzo Romar said earlier this week on the Pac-12 teleconference. "We didn't have the type of depth to defend the way we wanted to do. We have some players back now. We've installed a new offense, took the guys a while to learn that. It's all kind of coming together."
Washington did show signs of its potential during the non-conference slate, beating Saint Louis at home -- but that was pretty much it. There was an 18-point beatdown at the hands of Colorado State, as well as a home loss to Nevada.
Once the calendar turned to 2013, though, the Huskies flipped a switch. What has changed? It starts on the defensive end. They have been the best defensive team in the league through four games, especially on the perimeter. Pac-12 opponents are shooting just 18.9 percent from 3-point range against Washington. The Huskies are forcing more turnovers and allowing fewer second-chance opportunities. Overall, Washington hasn't allowed a team to score more than 63 points since Jackson State did it on Dec. 15.
It's a completely different team than last season despite having many of the same pieces (aside from Wroten and Ross). A year ago, the Huskies were far more up-tempo, looking to get out in transition and attack the rim with Wroten and Ross as the primary scorers. This season, they are playing much more of a half-court game, averaging more than four possessions fewer per game than a season ago.
Scoring is down as a team, but the Huskies are more versatile offensively. C.J. Wilcox has taken on the role of a go-to guy. Abdul Gaddy has matured into a very solid point guard in his final season. Scott Suggs has been a solid perimeter weapon after missing last season. But the development of Aziz N'Diaye has also been a major factor.
N'Diaye's numbers are up across the board, and he's a double-double threat every night. Moreover, his ability to grab errant shots and get putbacks has been a key.
"We're kind of doing it by committee," Romar said of the offensive balance.
Can Washington keep it up and contend for the upper tier of the Pac-12 this season? The Huskies won their first three league games on the road and then beat Colorado by double digits at home on Wednesday. An upcoming four-game stretch that includes home tilts against Arizona and Arizona State and trips to Oregon and UCLA could be the telltale sign.
Given where Washington was back in November, though, starting 4-0 is an accomplishment in itself.
*An earlier version of this article stated 4-0 was its best start in conference play since 1912. It has been corrected.
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