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Washington Looks to Reclaim Identity On the Road: Five Themes After Five Games

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The University of Washington Huskies were supposed to embrace the opportunity at home to reconnect with their identity during their two games at the Husky Classic last weekend.

After defeating Eastern Washington University 64-46 last Friday, Washington head coach Tia Jackson spoke about how nice it was for the team to bounce back after a disappointing road loss to Gonzaga University last weekend.

"I think all year even the challenges I put ‘em through in practice before we started our games, the team has shown a lot of resilience and their bounce back has been pretty complementary," said Jackson after the EWU victory. "I’m excited for them and I hope we can sustain what we’re doing consistently and that way we won’t have to worry about bouncing back from too many."

Yet after experiencing disappointment on a second consecutive Sunday with their three point home loss to Sacramento State University, the Huskies are once again looking to bounce back, this time on the road with a pair of games against the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.

Jackson has spoken repeatedly over the last two weeks about the need for the Huskies to reconnect with their identity and establish their signature. However, even for a "resilient" team, the prospect of having to repeatedly bounce back before even starting a challenging Pac-10 schedule does not seem like the best way to reconnect with or establish anything.

And while the trip to the Sunshine State might be a welcome reprieve from the characteristically stormy weather of Seattle, whether a road trip against the reigning WNIT champion and a 2009 NCAA tournament team can relieve them from the "storm and stress" of identity formation is uncertain.

In 1904, psychologist G. Stanley Hall coined the term "storm and stress" to describe the transition from adolescence to adulthood. While the idea that the adolescent identity crisis is universal has been debunked due to the realization individual differences and cultural "rites of passage" norms, many of explanations for how adolescents resolve the crisis are still relevant.

Among the stages of psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of personality development is experiencing feelings of competence in one’s abilities relative to others, whether that be in a classroom or among peers. Self-definition often comes in the form of defining ourselves by what we do well and receiving positive reinforcement from our environment when those things indeed occur.

Applied to basketball, it is difficult for a team to define itself without reinforcement for the things it does well or, perhaps even worse, with inconsistent results. In the words of Sacramento State coach Jamie Craighead after their victory against UW, "It’s hard sometimes to get your kids to learn when they’re losing -- it’s always easier to teach ‘em when they’re winning."

That certainly doesn’t mean there is nothing to gain from losing – as Washington guard Kristi Kingma described, the effort that the Huskies exhibited to get back into the game against Sacramento State after being down 10 points with 3:27 left in the second half is certainly something to feel good about.

"We were down 10 with three minutes left and I think last year's team or maybe even a team earlier this year would've given up but we really fought to the end and had a chance to send it into overtime," said Kingma.

However, as Craighead alluded to, the best positive reinforcement a team can get for what they do well is walking off the court with a win. So the question becomes, what does Washington need to do to experience feelings of competence and reconnect with their identity as Jackson describes?

1. Rebounding woes compromise defensive tenacity

Right now, both Jackson and the players describe their "signature" as their defense.

"That’s who we are – we are now more of your traditional team, mixing more of our role players with athleticism and you name it down the line," said Jackson after the EWU game.

However, while they may pride themselves on their defense, their rebounding struggles may be undermining their ability to define themselves defensively.

Although they are second among Pac-10 teams in steals averaging 11.8 per game, they are last in the conference in rebounding margin, offensive rebounds, and defensive rebounding percentage as well as 9th in offensive rebounding percentage.

For all their focus on holding teams defensively, they have not yet been able to keep them off the boards effectively, allowing even the undersized Sacramento State -- a team that does not start a player over 6’0" – to grab 43% of the available offensive rebounds.

"It’s important that we capitalize on our aggressive defense – which is kinda what our signature is – but we gotta capitalize on that with box outs," said Jackson after the EWU victory in which they allowed EWU to get 44% of the available offensive rebounds, including 52% in the first half. "Two weekends in a row now we’ve given up 20+ offensive boards. That’s a no-no. That’s a no-no. So we’ve really gotta clean up some things there."

Even though they are definitely working on the rebounding issue – senior guard Sami Whitcomb also identified it as "probably the biggest" problem – allowing smaller teams to out-rebound them on the defensive end is not particularly encouraging as they look ahead to bigger and more physical Pac-10 teams.

One possible solution lies in the size of one of their most exciting additions this season.

2. Regina Rogers is "instant offense in the key"

Entering the season, Jackson touted the arrival of 6’3" sophomore transfer center Regina Rogers to the team.

Despite struggling with her conditioning after sitting out a year in line with NCAA transfer rules, Rogers has steadily improved over the course of seven exhibition and non-conference schedule. Her increasing comfort and confidence in the post has her getting increasingly efficient and productive.

After a Husky Classic All-Tournament Team performance last weekend, she is definitely one of the bright spots on the team this season.

Pac-10 power rankings - The Daily of the University of Washington
While they haven’t looked like an NCAA-tournament team, it seems like the UW is still poised to improve on its eight-win season last year with the addition of transfer sophomore center Regina Rogers, who is averaging 10 points and 3.8 rebounds a game.

Both Jackson and the players have also taken note of Rogers’ productivity thus far.

"She’s kinda instant offense in the key," said Jackson after the EWU victory. "As you saw today defensively she’s continuing to get better and more aggressive, trusting her teammates behind her because we’re extending her – she’s out there pressuring the ball. and you can see, she can move, she can move."

Backcourt teammates Sarah Morton, Sara Mosiman, Sami Whitcomb have all talked about the importance of Rogers’ presence on the team – both her soft hands and ability to finish inside once receiving the ball.

"Having the bigs we have inside – they draw so much attention," said Whitcomb after the EWU win. "So when we drive and the help comes, they’re there all day. And they’re really doing a great job of finishing inside – just turning and taking the easy shot. So it gets us open on drives and shots and then we can find them easily."

However, despite the praise for both Rogers’ abilities and impact on the court, the Huskies have not fully utilized her talent. After the EWU game, Jackson said that Rogers’ 12 field goal attempts were not enough. In the next game against Sacramento State, Rogers only got off four shots over the final 30 minutes of the game.

While part of that is a matter of Rogers’ conditioning, there are a number of occasions when the perimeter players miss opportunities to get the ball inside to Rogers after she establishes position. As big a target as Rogers is when she establishes position against single coverage, part of the reason for the effectiveness of double coverage from teams like EWU or Sacramento State is that the perimeter players fail to recognize Rogers when she gets herself open.

Jackson’s reasoning for this is two-fold: at times she wants to use Rogers as a decoy to set up opportunities for Washington’s perimeter players. However, at other times Jackson attributes this to the team not being used to playing with a post player and waiting a few seconds too long to get the ball in the post.

Either way, none of the high praise for Rogers will matter if people don’t pass her the ball. It’s something that the team will have to work on.

"I think we’re real excited about building on that and then our inside game – I think there’s quite a complement with our guard play and our inside game," said Jackson in media day comments on Tuesday. "It’s just now recognizing when we need to use certain players as decoys and things like that. And we’re going to learn. We’re gonna learn."

3. Inconsistent ball handling prevents sharing the ball

One of Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans’ 5 keys to the Huskies season was "sharing the ball". Thus far, they haven’t been able to do that consistently.

However, if the goal is to get the ball into the post, the perimeter players – and especially the point guard -- have to be able to initiate the offense in order for Rogers (or senior Laura McLellan) to work in the post. Over the last three games, that’s been a problem.

While the Huskies’ overall turnover percentages have stayed at 30% or lower over the last three games, the backcourt has really struggled to protect possessions, epitomized by the play of point guard Sarah Morton.

Over the past three games against Gonzaga, EWU, and Sacramento State, Morton has had 5 assists to 17 turnovers. Advanced statistics aren’t necessary to establish that those numbers are problematic for a team that wants to establish a post presence. It’s not just Morton, but as Jackson has said in the past, point guard play is essential to their offensive identity as well, as described by Jackson.

"We kinda pride ourselves in a transition game – controlled transition game – and it starts with our point guard, to just make one move and blow by people despite the contact that you receive," said Jackson prior to the Husky Classic.

If the primary ball handler is struggling to set up and run the offense, it seems unlikely that the team will be able to share the ball or play a controlled transition game, instead running inconsistent offense and settling for less than high percentage scoring opportunities.

In the Sacramento State game, the problems initiating the offense manifested itself in the form of settling for three pointers; UW didn’t entirely just start shooting three’s to keep pace – it was partially as a result of stagnating offense. Unfortunately, three point shooting has been a challenge for a team as well.

4. Three point shooting

With inconsistent ball handling resulting in poor ball movement the Huskies can find themselves forcing drives or forcing low percentage shots. That includes three pointers.

Even going back to their pair of exhibition games, the fact is that UW has not started off the season shooting very well from the three point line.

Entering the Sacramento State game, they were 8th in the Pac-10 in three point percentage and last in three pointers made with 6. As such, shooting 19 three pointers in that game – going 3-14 in the second half – was probably not a formula for success. The decreased ball movement also shows up in the statistics as the Huskies simultaneously had a very low assisted field goal percentage of 33% in the second half on 12 of 40 shooting.

Part of the reason for the increased pace and the poor shot selection was Sacramento State’s full court pressure, which has unfortunately been yet another problem for the Huskies.

5. Handling pressure is a problem

At this point, it should be no secret that Washington does not handle pressure well.

"We’re going to get ready for some pressure," said Jackson prior to Tuesday’s practice. "We’ve got two teams [USF and UCF] we’re going to go against that are relentless in their full court pressure. It’s great prep for us – that’s why the scheduling is the way it is: to get us ready for a pretty tough Pac-10 conference. We’re going to play two really, really good teams and their pressure is pretty relentless."

Relentless pressure has been a problem for the Huskies in a variety ways during their three losses.

Against Portland State, late full court pressure is what helped Portland State erase a 12 point deficit, according to Evans. Conversely, against Sacramento State, it was the early pressure that got the Huskies off to a disoriented start. Against Gonzaga, Jackson claimed they had no turnovers against their press the problem was the half court offense.

"For those who weren’t present, you would think that they pressed us the entire game and that’s how we had our turnovers," said Jackson after the Gonzaga game. "We didn’t. We had our turnovers doing things that weren’t Husky-like: penetrating into the zone, forcing that habit and it was something that just wasn’t us.

"As far as their pressure, they did press us, but we had no turnovers versus their press. It was in their half-court defense that we struggled a little bit. It was more looking to go one-on-one, forcing the action, and we did that more than not. And we needed to do more of the not of that versus the alternative."

Collectively, we can conclude the following: in the presence of pressure, the Huskies don’t do so well, whether it be turning the ball over, problems initiating their offense, or frantically forcing the action once they get into their sets. As stated previously, whether they can start doing things that are more "Husky-like" against two teams "that are relentless in their full court pressure" is uncertain.

Building as a family, bouncing back, and reclaiming identity

Taken as a whole, what we’ve seen from UW thus far is a discrepancy between what their expressed vision of what they want to do and their capacity to exercise their abilities to bring that vision to fruition in the form of wins.

To their credit, statistically, they should have won the Portland State game, which would have been a huge confidence boost to start the season and hit the road 3-2. In that regard, the buzzer beater that defeated them might be even more heartbreaking in retrospect than it was at the time.

However, the fact that they performed relatively well statistically in comparison to PSU might be even more reason for concern in terms of experiencing feelings of competence in the identity formation process – even when they do shoot well, win the rebounding battle on both sides of the court, and get to the free throw line, they still lose. In the context of trying to resolve an identity crisis, losing even when you play well doesn’t seem helpful.

Nevertheless, Jackson is still deriving hope from the newfound effort and incremental improvement exhibited in the Sacramento State loss.

"We’re going to continue to build as a family – the most important thing is staying together," said Jackson after Sunday's game. "We’re gonna bounce back pretty well from this. I think like Kristi said this is a team a year ago that would have a year ago that would’ve – you pick the number – we wouldn’t have found that way to come back and be in contention to win games. Now we are: we talk about being bigger and better and we put ourselves in a place because we’ve grown so much as players, we’re more experienced."

"I mean, Regina is just a sophomore. We’re saying go into her like she’s Shaq and experienced in the pros and she’s a sophomore. So we’ve got a lot of experience with the seniors, but then a lot of key players that are so so young. And now we’ve learned – we’ve learned from last year. We have gotten bigger and better. We’ve grown. We’re mature. And it’s good to have these tests early because down the road you put us in this situation again and it’s a different outcome."

However, if they want to reconnect with their identity and establish their signature so they can avoid having to repeatedly bounce back and reconnect, they’ll have to start by maximizing their strengths and learning from winning as Craighead described. Based on their own words, it seems like that starts with boxing out to not compromise their defense and finding a way to capitalize on their post presence by getting Rogers more shots.

One can only hope that the identity formation process is resolved prior to the start of conference play. Otherwise, there will be a long, stormy, and stressful journey through the Pac-10 ahead.

Related Links:

Sacramento State Steals the Show at the Husky Classic
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/11/30/1178924/sacramento-state-steals-the-show

Update:

A timely tweet from John C. Maxwell: "There are 3 things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, & to know oneself. -Benjamin Franklin"