With a 6-0 start compiled on the heels of signing one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in school history, there appears to be a faint buzz forming around the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team.
The occasion of Sunday’s 6 p.m. home game against No. 13-ranked San Diego State, then, presents an opportunity for the Huskies to accumulate further proof of relevance.
“I think we are developing a belief in our group right now,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. “But you develop that because you put the time into it. You earn it. You earn it with your work prior to those games. I think our guys feel like we’ve earned it.”
They did last week, defeating San Jose State, Long Beach State and UTEP to take home the Wooden Legacy tournament championship.
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Romar noted that UW’s schedule has become increasingly difficult, which is the way he wanted it. Long Beach and UTEP are the two best teams the Huskies have played. But San Diego State is better, and is probably the best team on UW’s entire nonconference schedule.
The Aztecs, defending Mountain West Conference champions, have lost only to No. 2 Arizona — and that narrow, 61-59 defeat was impressive enough to move SDSU from 15th to 13th in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
Steve Fisher, in his 16th season as the Aztecs coach, has led SDSU to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 last year. And they do it with defense, holding opponents so far this year to just 35.1 percent shooting from the field.
“They crash the glass on the offensive end,” UW point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “I was watching them play San Diego, and they really hit the glass hard. We know we’re going to have to do a really good job of being poised on the offensive end and keeping them off the offensive glass.”
The Huskies experienced it last year in the first game of this home-and-home series. Playing before a sellout crowd of 12,414 at SDSU’s Viejas Arena, the Huskies led 31-20 at halftime before losing, 70-63, thanks to the Aztecs’ 17-2 run to begin the second half.
“They kind of blitzed us out of halftime,” Williams-Goss said. “We had a few turnovers that really allowed them to get back into the game. I feel like if we take care of the ball like we did in the first half of last year’s game and keep them off the offensive glass and keep them off the foul line — that was another big thing. We let them get the foul line at a high rate, and we have to do a good job of playing solid defense and keeping them off the line.”
So far, the Huskies have allowed opponents to shoot only 35.5 percent from the field, an effort Romar described as “the best we’ve ever done. We’ve had other teams that forced more turnovers, but in terms of limiting teams to baskets, this is the best after six games.”
Stellar interior defense will be a priority against the Aztecs, who will likely start four players 6-foot-7 or taller, and are led in scoring by 6-8, 215-pound junior forward Winston Shepard (10.7 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), a preseason all-Mountain West selection.
Robert Upshaw, UW’s 7-foot sophomore center with 29 blocked shots through six games, recalled playing against SDSU as a freshman at Fresno State, and said “they had a really good team then.”
They do this year, too.
“They’re a high-caliber team,” Upshaw said, “but I feel like the team that we have this year is going to be able to compete, and out-compete, the team that they have.”
Said Romar: “They’re going to guard you. They’re long. They have interchangeable pieces. They attack the backboards relentlessly. They get to the foul line. Anything to do with aggression, they do at a high level.”
A higher level seems attainable for the Huskies, too. A victory on Sunday would accelerate that belief.