University of Washington

Huskies’ defense faces different challenge against Eastern Washington

His Washington Huskies basketball team had just completed a dominant, 49-36 defensive beatdown of then-No. 13 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.

Eastern Washington, which visits the Huskies at 5 p.m. Sunday (Pac-12 Network), 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,” UW center Robert Upshaw said. “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 2012-13 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 33.6 percent shooting from the field. That figure ranks sixth 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,” Huskies point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “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 defensive rotation and eventually leads to open shot attempts from the perimeter.

“What they’re really good at is transition. When you’re getting back, you’re back, but you’re not in proper floor position,” Romar said. “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.”

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com

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