SEATTLE – His Washington Huskies basketball team had just completed a dominant, 49-36 defensive beatdown of 13th-ranked San Diego State, but coach Lorenzo Romar wasn’t interested in a coronation.
He needed only to look at UW’s next opponent to know that stiffer offensive challenges await.
“When we play next Sunday against Eastern Washington,” Romar boldly predicted, “I guarantee you they’re going to score more than 36 points.”
San Diego State wins games – a lot of them, usually – by playing stellar defense and pounding the backboards for buckets in the paint. The Aztecs are a fine basketball team, but will never be confused for an offensive juggernaut.
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Eastern Washington, which visits the Huskies at 5 p.m. Sunday (Pac-12 Networks), is far more worthy of that distinction. In attaining an 8-1 start, the Eagles have averaged 85 points per game (10th-best in the country), made 52.4 percent of their field-goal attempts (seventh in the country), and made 41.9 percent of their 3-point attempts (19th in the country) despite shooting a total of 218 3-pointers in 10 games (18th-most in the country).
“They’re a better team when it comes to shooting,” said UW center Robert Upshaw. “They have five guys that start that can shoot the ball really well. But I think we just play the same principles that we do with any other team. We’ve just got to run them off the three. We’ve got to rebound the ball, because they’re pretty sneaky when it comes to that.
The Eagles’ schedule features mostly cupcakes, though it also features an 88-86 victory at Indiana – yes, that Indiana – which gave the Big Sky Conference its first win against a Big Ten school since 2006.
Two EWU players – reigning Big Sky scoring champion Tyler Harvey and reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year, Venky Jois – average more than 20 points per game.
“No one that we have played plays like that,” Romar said. “No one that is on our schedule plays like that. It’s a fun way to play, the way they’re playing, no doubt about it. I told our team they will be the most difficult team to guard this year. Didn’t say they’ll be necessarily the best team, but they’re awfully good. But they’re difficult to guard, because of their personnel and what they do.”
It should be a matchup of strength vs. strength, then. The Huskies (7-0) are off to their best start since 2006-07, and entered both major polls last week at No. 17. They’ve achieved those marks by using their length and a packed-in defense to limit their opponents to just 33.6 percent shooting from the field. That figure ranks sixth-best nationally.
But like Romar said, Eastern plays a fast-paced, shoot-shoot-shoot style of basketball that UW hasn’t yet seen this season.
“Our coaches definitely mentioned that it’s a totally different defensive scheme going into it, playing against a shooting team, compared to last week when they were more a driving team and an inside team,” said Huskies point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. “It’ll be different, but we’ve had a good week to prepare.”
The key to defending an eager 3-point shooting team, Romar said, is limiting the kind of dribble penetration that necessitates rotation and eventually leads to open shot attempts from the perimeter.
But, Romar added, “what they’re really good at is transition. When you’re getting back, you’re back, but you’re not in proper floor position. And they catch and shoot from anywhere. And you’re just not accustomed to guarding that type of shooting team that early in the possession. Again, what I mean is, you get back, you’re there, and as soon as you rest, like, ‘OK, I busted my tail to get back’ – that guy has the ball in his hands, he’s got it at 25 feet, and he’s shooting it. Most teams don’t play like that.”
The Eagles allow opponents to shoot 41 percent from the field – not terrible, but not great, either. A slugfest is not expected.
“Up-tempo – I would expect it to be up and down,” Romar said. “Two totally different teams you’re talking, San Diego State and Eastern. … It’s been well-noted the success San Diego State has had. But when we’re talking offense – two entirely different situations. And Eastern will present an entirely different challenge for us than San Diego State did.”
Eastern Washington (8-1) at No. 17 Washington (7-0)
5 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Seattle
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM.
All-time series: Washington leads the all-time series 12-1.
Statistics for 2014-15 unless otherwise noted
Player Pos Ht PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
Tyler Harvey G 6-4 20.4 3.9 3.7 47.7 74.2
Parker Kelly G 6-4 9.6 2.1 0.9 44.0 78.9
Drew Brandon G 6-4 8.8 7.9 5.0 47.5 86.7
Ognjen Miljkovic F 6-7 13.2 4.1 1.2 49.3 73.1
Venky Jois F 6-8 21.1 8.4 2.1 67.0 58.3
Player Pos Ht PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
Nigel Williams-Goss G 6-3 `4.7 5.6 6.9 43.6 75.0
Andrew Andrews G 6-2 12.6 4.0 2.1 38.0 83.3
Mike Anderson G 6-4 6.9 5.7 1.9 45.2 75.0
Jernard Jarreau F 6-10 5.0 5.0 1.3 37.5 61.1
Shawn Kemp F 6-9 10.0 4.3 0.1 62.2 56.0
Scouting report: As Lorenzo Romar said, the Eagles might not be the best team on the Huskies’ schedule, but they’re certainly the best offensive team UW will face in the nonconference portion of its schedule – and maybe all season. That’s not a surprise to anyone who follows Eastern Washington. Big Sky coaches picked EWU to finish second in the conference behind Weber State, and it’s not hard to see why. The Eagles have several offensive weapons, including players like Harvey, Kelly and Miljkovic who can knock down 3-pointers frequently, and a bruising, energetic power forward in Venky Jois, the 6-8 sophomore who scored 38 points in consecutive games against Eastern Oregon and Seattle University.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple