After being considered heavy favorites to win the Pac-10 throughout non-conference play, the Washington Huskies have had an erratic and tumultuous experience in conference play.
First sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy went down with a season-ending injury, then a number of players were playing through or out due to injury, and finally senior point guard Venoy Overton was suspended for the 2011 Pac-10 tournament after being charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor.
You can take your pick of more specific low points - a three-game road losing streak, getting swept by cross-state rival Washington State, or dropping two of their last three home games in disappointing fashion.
Nevertheless, there was a reason many people around the Pac-10 thought this would be the team that got head coach Lorenzo Romar his first trip to the Elite Eight in his ninth year at UW: this is still arguably the most talented roster top to bottom in the Pac-10 and when they're focused, they can outrun inferior talent and play with the best in the nation. With Overton back for the NCAA tournament to fuel this team's pressure defense, this is a team that can harass opponents into a back-and-forth game where they generate offense off of turnovers.
Record: 20-10 overall, 11-7 Pac-10 as of 3/10/11
Arizona 85-68 (1/22/11, Seattle) - This win looms larger now in light of Arizona beating Washington 87-86 in Tuscon and eventually winning the Pac-10 regular season title. Most importantly, UW's defense stepped up to "hold" Arizona star Derrick Williams to 22 points that came primarily on hustle plays rather than breaking down the defense.
The combination of beating USC 73-67 OT (12/29/10, Los Angeles) and UCLA 74-63 (12/31/10, Los Angeles) on the road - last season the Huskies struggled to get wins on the road, so getting two road wins to open conference play 2-0 was a sign that perhaps they would be able to live up to expectations this season. Against USC, freshman Terrence Ross stepped up for 18 points, confirming his potential. Against UCLA forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning had a double-double with 21 points and 15 rebounds.
Oregon State 68-56 (2/3/11, Corvallis, Ore) - The ugly loss to the Beavers came after their road loss to Pullman and was arguably their worst of the season. UW not only struggled offensively against OSU's zone, but their trademark defensive intensity was absent, a pattern in their conference losses.
Oregon 81-76 (2/5/11, Eugene, Ore) - This came right after the OSU game to complete three game losing streak and although they defended better, they turned the ball over 10 times in the first half which got them in a hole early. The loss appeared to inspire them as they won their next three home games, but they were unable to maintain that momentum.
Players to watch:
Isaiah Thomas, G (5-foot-8, 185 lbs., Jr.): There's little question about who the focal point of opposing defenses is on this team. Although we know Thomas can score as he finished fifth in the conference with 16.56 points per game, what really stands out about the dynamic junior is his conference-leading 5.6 assists per game. There were some questions about whether Thomas would be able to handle ball-handling duties once Gaddy went down, but he should have put those doubts to rest.
Justin Holiday, F (6-foot-6, 180 lbs., Sr.): Although Matthew Bryan-Amaning was rewarded for his play with the Most Improved player award, Holiday's versatility is a very important part of what the Huskies do. That versatility is most noticeable on defense where Holiday can guard posts, like USC's 6-foot-10 Nikola Vucevic, when UW goes small or pressure opposing wings on the perimeter to complement Overton's intensity at the point. With the intangibles he brings, his impact might not always show up in the boxscore as he averaged 11.26 points and 5.16 rebounds per game, but he also had the fourth highest average plus/minus in the conference.
See our printable 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket.