Washington freezes out competition in Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- There was certainly reason for at least a little bit of skepticism.
When this college basketball season began, it was difficult to really know what to make of the University of Washington. Lorenzo Romar's team did return five starters from last season. The Huskies do have a legitimate star in guard Nate Robinson. And U-Dub has the potent combination of a crazy offense and a swarming defense that leaves one wondering whether they drink Red Bull or Gatorade in the huddle.
While that's all good, history made it difficult to know whether the Huskies were really legitimate. Was Washington the team that closed last regular season by winning 14 of 16 games? Or would the Huskies revert back to the team that opened the season 5-8? Which was the truer picture: The losses at Wyoming and Houston? Or the victory over then-No. 1 Stanford?
Those questions were answered for good at this week's Great Alaska Shootout. Facing the toughest draw of the teams in Anchorage, the Huskies' buffet included one serving of Utah, a helping of Oklahoma and a Saturday night main course of No. 19 Alabama. How good was Washington (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today; No. 22 AP) this week? Let's just say our guy Andy Katz shouldn't have to think twice when it comes to picking his Team of the Week.
"They hit big shot after big shot after big shot," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said after his team's 79-76 loss. "Washington is a very good basketball team.
"Not only are they experienced, they're good. They have quality experience."
If there was any doubt amongst the Huskies players where this team fits on the national landscape, it vanished in Alaska. They proved they could win close games. They showed in the victory over the Utes that they can beat a team with a good big man. And they eliminated the question of whether they could rebound against bigger front lines, outrebounding both Oklahoma and Alabama.
"This was a statement that we're the real deal," forward Bobby Jones said. "If we keep our mind to it, we can beat anybody.
"We have a veteran team and veteran teams do special things."
Romar, in just his third season at Washington, knows what his team accomplished.
"For us to come out on top here against three outstanding teams is something that I don't know if our guys really understand what we were able to accomplish," Romar said.
"I just don't think we'll play against three teams of this magnitude consecutively until we possibly get to the Pac-10 tournament or possibly to the NCAA Tournament. This was a tough field for us."
And the amazing thing is that the Huskies did all of this while short-handed. Tre Simmons sat out the game against the Utes after playing in an unsanctioned summer league. While he returned for the game against the Sooners, it wasn't long before guard Brandon Roy went down with a hyperextended right knee. Roy watched the victory over the Crimson Tide -- a team that returned four starters from last season's Elite Eight team -- from the bench in street clothes.
Guard Will Conroy, who scored 18 points against Alabama, said that depth is the one thing that gets overlooked by people when they talk about the Huskies. The perception is that Washington is guard Nate Robinson and a few other guys. While Robinson is clearly one of the top guards in the country, the Huskies are not simply a one-man team.
"Nate brings us a lot of national attention and he's a great player," Conroy said. "But then when people come and see us play, they're like, 'Who's that guy? And who's that other guy? These guys are really good.'"
While a Shootout victory doesn't guarantee anything -- last season's winner, Purdue, didn't sniff the NCAA Tournament -- the Huskies certainly have the look of a team that can be very good. Because other than a lack of size up front, there are few holes in this Washington team.
Romar's team has an abundance of guards, it has players at every position who can make perimeter shots and the Huskies have the desire and aptitude to play great defense. There are certainly a lot of teams nationally that have two of the three, but how many have all three?
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, who preaches defense first, defense second and rebounding third, was impressed after the Huskies torched his team on Friday night.
"Washington is a great, not a good, a great offensive team," Sampson said. "They don't have anybody that can't make a shot."
Said Gottfried: "When you start to study them, you see that they scored 96 on Oklahoma. Then you look back to last year and what they did against Arizona. They're putting points on everybody. They can score."
Dating back to last season, Washington has scored at least 75 points in 19 of 21 games. The Huskies scored at least 85 points in 11 of those games.
But this isn't one of those high-powered offensive teams that doesn't guard anyone. "We always play like we have a chip on our shoulder," Jones said. Much of Washington's offense is predicated on forcing opponents into bad decisions and creating turnovers.
"We try to put points on the board and make as many stops as we can to get more points on the board," Robinson said.
Said Conroy: "When we get on the break, the other team better have their track shoes on."
To a man, the Washington players say this team has the makings of something special.
"Everybody wants to win 20 times more than last year," Robinson said.
"We can go so far. Every guy on this team brings something special."
How good can this Washington team be? They certainly look like a team that can win the Pac-10 and could make a significant splash nationally. That's all well and good, but Washington has something it wants to take care of first.
The Huskies want to be the best team in the state of Washington.
On Wednesday, Washington gets another shot at Gonzaga, a game being played in the Zags' new arena. The Huskies have lost six consecutive games to Gonzaga, including a 24-point waxing last season in Seattle.
"I get tired of losing to them," Robinson said. "I know we're in for a fight. It's going to be crazy, they've got a new stadium. The guys are going to be ready."
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.