Sunday, 6:00pm, Pac-12 Networks.
San Diego State (6-1) represents Washington's first major challenge of the young season. The #13 Aztecs are the only ranked team on UW's non-conference schedule, and should end up being the best team the Huskies play this year with the exception of Arizona.
Technically Washington (6-0) enters with the better record, but SDSU's lone loss came by two points to top-five Arizona. The Aztecs have also beaten Pitt and BYU. Most recently SDSU outlasted San Diego 57-48 in a sloppy contest.
The Aztecs do not shoot very well (true shooting percentage of 50.4, 261st in the country), pass very well (.74 assist to turnover ratio, 284th), or even rebound that well (49.9 rebound percentage, 209th).
SDSU's success is instead predicated on defense. A few defensive stats: .74 points per possession (14th), 11.8 block percentage (7th), 43.1 true shooting percentage (10th).
The Aztecs don't win pretty, often shooting a poor percentage and struggling with turnovers, but opponents typically look even worse.
Likely starting five: G Trey Kell (Fr., 6-4, 215), G Winston Shepard (Jr., 6-8, 210), F Dwayne Polee II (Sr., 6-7, 200), F JJ O'Brien (Sr., 6-7, 215), C/F Skylar Spencer (Jr., 6-10, 240).
The next three in the rotation are G Aqeel Quinn (Sr., 6-3, 201), F Angelo Chol (6-9, 220), and G Kevin Zabo (Fr., 6-2, 205).
In fitting with the defense-first mentality, this team lacks an obvious star. Shepard has averaged 10.2ppg and 5.3rpg, but Polee is the only other player averaging over 10ppg (10.1), and he's also chipping in over two steals per game. O'Brien is contributing 9.6ppg and 6.1rpg.
A glance at the dimensions of the starting five may help shed some light on SDSU's defensive success. Kell is the only real guard-sized starter at 6-4, Shepard, Polee, and O'Brien are all long wings, and then Spencer anchors the defensive as a poor-man's Robert Upshaw. He's averaging 3.7 rejections a game.
The flip side to basically playing a single guard: this team seems to lack an actual point guard. The 6-7 O'Brien leads the team with 2.3apg, with Kell tied for 2nd with only 1.4. Obviously it has worked out so far, but the Aztecs do struggle with turnovers and their assist percentage (42.7) is 335th in the country.
Washington will have trouble with SDSU's length and size, but as long as the Huskies can avoid surrendering too many cheap points in the form of transition lobs or easy buckets under the basket, the Aztec offense should sputter. Force them to settle down and run a half-court offense, and they will look very beatable.
Upshaw's presence will be essential to dealing with all the extra length on the wings and the matchup issue presented by Spencer. If he struggles with foul trouble again, it is tough to see Washington holding up over a full 40 minutes.
Kemp will also be key. After a red-hot start, he has quieted down in the past few games, often as a result of early foul trouble. Washington survived losing both Kemp and Upshaw to foul trouble against Long Beach State, but losing both for a significant chunk of time would likely prove to be too much.
Washington has made up for the loss in production from Kemp partially by shooting the ball very well from beyond the arc. A few weeks ago this was the team's greatest question. Then freshman forward Donaven Dorsey started to rain threes during the Wooden Legacy Tourney.
He is now 12-25 from beyond the arc, and combined with the spot-up contributions of Quevyn Winters and improved jump-shooting from Andrews, the days of opponents hunkering down in 2-3 zones appear to be (at least temporarily) over.
Romar's squad will likely need to fire on all cylinders to beat such a physical, scrappy opponent, but it's not that difficult to picture.
Imagine: NWG runs the offense calmly and efficiently in the first half, feeding Kemp in the post and finding Upshaw for easy lobs. As the defense reacts to the scoring down low, things open up for Dorsey and Winters on the perimeter to help maintain the early lead, and down the stretch NWG and Andrews deliver tough baskets and hit key free throws to give Washington a narrow home victory despite an ugly offensive performance overall.
Optimistic, certainly, but it doesn't read as much like a delusional fairy tale as it might have last year or the year before. It's almost exactly how Washington kept winning last weekend.
Of course, for that scenario to work out, SDSU will need to struggle on offense the way they did on Thursday against San Diego. Washington has been solid defensively, but it will take more than a bunch of blocked shots to gut out this one. Old-school Romar on-ball pressure out to half-court will be a must. The defensive glass must belong to Washington (which means a little less ball-watching from Upshaw).
Perhaps this will be the game that brings my expectations back down to earth and reminds me what I thought this team would be back in the off season, but I don't think so.
Let me know your thoughts and your prediction in the comments.
Washington 69, SDSU 67