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Pac-10 Week in Review: What Shall We Make of Washington’s Early Success?

The University of Washington is off to an impressive 3-1 start after sweeping the Arizona schools at home last weekend. <em>Photo via <a href="http://jlindstr.smugmug.com/photos/760018221_J6jjR-XL.jpg">jlindstr.smugmug.com</a></em>
The University of Washington is off to an impressive 3-1 start after sweeping the Arizona schools at home last weekend. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com

After their 69-59 loss in Seattle on Saturday, University of Arizona coach Niya Butts unsurprisingly said that she was not surprised by the University of Washington’s strong performance to start the season.

"In so many cases, it’s not really surprising at all," said Butts. "Outside of Stanford being a real key figure in this league right now, I think it’s anybody’s basketball game. And I think you’re going to see that night in and night out. It doesn’t matter what game you attend. I think anybody can beat anybody in this league. I think it makes for good basketball."

And to some extent, Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans is right: UW’s 3-1 Pac-10 start is nothing to get overly excited either about in terms of assessing the quality of this team. Not only did those three wins come against suspect competition, but in their first Pac-10 game against the University of Oregon, they were actually down 14 late in the second half * after * their big run.

Fair enough – Washington's start may be neither cause for surprise nor excitement.

But let’s be honest: no reasonable person would have expected UW to start the Pac-10 3-1, including a win – regardless of location – against an Arizona State University team that is off to a 1-3 start.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that even die hard fans are probably a little bit surprised by the start.

Forget about comparisons to last year and the fact that Washington has already matched both their Pac-10 win total and road win total from their 2008-09 campaign.

Clearly, something has changed drastically in a very short period of time.

It was not too long ago that Washington was a team that coaches and media both picked to finish 10th in the conference in pre-season polls. During non-conference play against a mediocre strength of schedule they had a decidedly uninspiring performance.

That non-conference performance included a home loss to Sacramento State in which they found themselves getting caught up in the Hornets frenzied pace and a narrow win against an undersized SeattleU team that is still transitioning to Division I. And it wasn’t just about winning and losing – they were playing very poorly.

On top of all that, key contributor Sara Mosiman is now out for the season, joining a whole unit of injured Huskies this year.

So it’s not like this was a disappointing or underachieving team that everybody assumed had better talent than their record shows in non-conference play. Nobody expected anything of Washington before the season began and Washington did nothing to substantively challenge those low expectations in non-conference play.

Had another round of coaches and media polls been conducted just prior to Pac-10 play, would there be any reason to move Washington up in the rankings?

People can continue saying they’re not surprised by Washington’s performance and yet the fact remains that everyone voted them to finish last place in the conference. 

This team has created something from what looked like nothing to most people.

"Being picked to finish tenth is kind of insulting – it makes you want to work that much harder," said McLellan after their Arizona win on Saturday. "And I think we’re starting to prove that although maybe we didn’t do very well last season this is a completely different team. From last season – even from the beginning of this season – I think we’ve just improved so much and I think we’re going to shock some people at the end with the way we finish."

So part of what makes this start significant is that -- insulting or not -- this is a team that has far exceeded expectations, all caveats about strength of competition aside.

As McLellan alludes to, there was something visibly different even in the loss to Oregon in Eugene – there was a clear rhythm to their offense and a little extra energy on defense. They looked systematic in what they were doing and looked extremely decisive in what they wanted to do. It was by far their best overall performance of the season to that point. That cohesion on the court is probably one of the most significant changes in the team’s performance in conference play thus far. 

"It’s interesting being on the bench and getting that angle," said injured guard Mosiman of the team’s improved play during their three game win streak. "Even in practice you can see it – just how much more confident we are in the passes we make, in our decision making skills. I think that the biggest thing that’s been different from last year is our decision making."

Against Arizona State University and the University of Arizona this past weekend, they took another step forward as the signature defense they’d talked about repeatedly in the pre-season not only came to fruition, but also translated into wins.

"Defense shouldn’t be a reaction -- it should be more of a pro-active kind of thing," said Mosiman. "So I think we definitely have been getting better at being a step ahead instead of half a step behind and reacting to the play -- being prepared for a play. Being able to move on a pass instead of seeing the pass go and then move."

So how did this all occur? Although it might sound evasive, Washington coach Tia Jackson and the players have attributed their recent success to the bonding that occurred on the road near the end of 2009.

"I think in the month of December being away, we learned a lot as a team," said Jackson on Saturday. "And we learned a lot about how to gel, how to deal with good days, bad days, splitting, understanding how to do it. Doesn’t hurt that this one (Kingma) is scoring well in the last few games. It’s a credit to just being away and bonding as a group. I’ll be honest with you. If I think of something else I’ll let you know."

None of this is to say that Washington will suddenly ascend the Pac-10 standings and challenge almighty Stanford University for a championship. Yet despite the fact that it’s early, it is intriguing and somewhat jarring to see the quality of play improve so rapidly for this team, independent of wins and losses.

The wins just bring that much more attention to the increased quality of performance and keeps spirits high within the team.

"Obviously, winning makes things a lot better, easier," said injured guard Sara Mosiman yesterday. "I mean, I know I feel like I heal every time we get a win. So it’s helped us a lot. Off the court, last year even through it all we still had pretty good spirits just in terms of being with each other. So I think maybe it’s changed a little bit -- we’re getting a little confidence and comfort level on the court, which helps our chemistry off the court as well. But we always have fun in the locker room and outside."

The question – as Evans suggests – is whether they can keep it up against the conference’s more elite competition.

"Yeah we’re 3-1 right now, but we don’t want to stay at 3 wins," said Whitcomb. "We want to push that and keep winning. And that’s going to be the biggest thing: not settling now with a 3-1 record. We want to continue to win, continue to be competitive in the Pac-10."

Pac-10 MVP: Ify Ibekwe, University of Arizona 1-1 (18.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, MVP: 47.13)

Yes, Pac-10 Player of the Week Nhemkadi Ogwumike's 21 ppg,10.5 rpg, and 93.3% free throw shooting looks much more impressive than Ibekwe's stat line.

However, David Sparks' MVP metric is an interesting way to evaluate player performance because it not only takes into account the strength of the performance, but also the significance of that individual performance to the team's overall performance. It helps to determine which players make the largest contribution to their team's success relative to their teammates (click here for a full description of Sparks' MVP metric. I simply use a multiplier to represent it as a number out of 100 instead of 1).

In this past week, Ibekwe was actually responsible for a larger portion of her team's performance than Ogwumike. Of course, one explanation is that Stanford's supporting cast is simply playing better than Arizona's (and arguably every team in the nation not named UConn) meaning that a strong individual performance means more to Arizona than to Stanford. It's not a challenge to the Pac-10's selection of Player of the Week as much of a complementary way to see who is doing what for their team.

So far this season, Ibekwe is playing very well for her team overall. Prior to the Arizona game, Whitcomb identified Ibekwe as a focal player.

"They have some size with Ify -- she's a great player," said Whitcomb after Washington's win against Arizona State last Thursday. "Just remembering from last year, she was a great rebounder."

Even with that knowledge in advance and despite a very good defensive effort from Washington, Ibekwe pulled down 15 rebounds, six of which were offensive.

The best way to describe Ibekwe's performance against Washington is active -- both on the glass and as a scorer. Although she actually did not have a strong shooting game going 5-17, she demonstrated what makes her such a dangerous player.

Around the basket she is able to use a variety of fakes and quick dribble moves to creatively work her way around defenders. However, what was more surprising watching her for the first time was her ability away from the basket.

On her first play of the game with 18:52 left in the first half, she got the ball on the elbow and drove by an athletic Mackenzie Argens, getting to the basket and finishing strong to draw the foul. Using an aggressive first step and showing a nose for the basket, she was able to get by almost anybody UW put on her. Later in the first half she jumped the passing lane and picked off a casual pass from Washington point guard Sarah Morton and took it to the basket for a fast break layup.

To merely say she's talented might be an understatement -- she can be dominant. And when her teammates -- like the talented freshman Davellyn Whyte -- support her, Arizona can be a dangerous team.

Pac-10 Newcomer of the Week: DeNesha Stallworth, California 0-2 (30 pts on 13-21 shooting, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks in USC loss on Sunday, MVP: 30)

Cal is a young team that is still growing, but it will be exciting to watch their group of freshmen develop over the years.

This weekend, Stallworth was the standout, as norcalnick of California Golden Blogs pointed out.

Cal Women's Basketball Week in Review: Inaugural Edition - California Golden Blogs
I almost wish I had paid the USC Athletic Department 10 dollars just so I could have seen Stallworth's 30 point outburst. Cal fell asleep to start the 2nd half and USC threatened to run away with the game, but DeNesha put the Bears on her back and scored bucket after bucket down the stretch. From the sounds of it DeNesha is putting together talent and poise, and as a freshman that should be a scary thought to the rest of the conference.

"A lot of rebounding, a lot of baskets in transition," said Jackson of Stallworth's performance against USC after reviewing the game tape. "She does a very good job of using what she's got around the rim and she's creating a lot of space to get rebounds there. She outran USC's bigs up and down the floor. They found her on duck-ins and she finished very, very effectively."

Although both UCLA's transfer Jasmine Dixon and Arizona's freshman Davellyn Whyte were arguably more consistent this weekend, Stallworth's ability to make contributions in the flow of the game has been extremely important to Cal this year.

Pac-10 Player to Watch: Kristi Kingma, Washington 2-0 (tied career-high 25 points against Arizona, including 12-16 free throw shooting for a free throw rate of 94.11%)

For more about Kingma's performance against Arizona, please see the summary of that game.

Most important is that Kingma's emergence says quite a bit about Washington's balance.

It is not a team that relies solely on one player as they have multiple players who can step up at any time and talking to the players over the course of this season, it's clear that not only are they disinterested in hogging the spotlight, but they are also far more focused on the performance of the unit than any one player.

"As a player you feel like in close games you should be contributing more – like you’re not really living up to what your potential is, but I feel like we’ve had people step up," said McLellan after the Arizona game. "We had Mackenzie scoring 21 points, we had Mollie stepping up and playing really well. So it’s a really balanced team. So it’s a lot easier to swallow when you see other teammates stepping up in your place."

Both Kingma's and McLellan's response to their changing roles might be most representative of the way this team is not only playing as a unit but responding to adversity.

ASU gets first win

Although ASU forward Becca Tobin is usually a strong rebounder, that wasn't necessarily the case this past weekend. But her scoring in the post was a key factor to their performance this past weekend - the 18 ppg is 8 points over her non-conference average -- in which they won their first game.

Against Washington, she showed a variety of post moves, including moves from the low block and finding scoring opportunities in space, going up with either hand and hitting a couple of reverses.

Defensively, she was often out guarding Washington's guards and actually did an admirable job of staying in front and even blocked a Sami Whitcomb jumper on a recovery play in the first half.

Post play is certainly not the problem for ASU - when they get the ball into a player like Tobin, they're able to create points. The problem has been getting the ball into the post and a team that doesn't spread the court well when their guards are off.

"You gotta have guards that set up when we take advantage of our post play," said ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne. "Our guards need to get tougher and more consistent and take care of the ball better and just make better decisions with the basketball."

As evidenced by their win against Washington State, when they have Orsillo playing well in addition to Tobin's steady play, they are still a very good team when they play disciplined basketball.

What's up with California?

With ASU having won a game now, perhaps we can now turn our attention toward Cal.

Cal vs. UCLA women's basketball game thread - California Golden Blogs
Cal played great defense for 30 minutes, but UCLA scored 23 over the last 10 minutes of the game by hitting mid range jumpers and consistently getting inside and drawing fouls. The key stats: Cal shot 28% from the field and 50% from the line and had 23 turnovers. I don’t know how many possessions Cal had, but I’m going to make a leap and guess that Cal’s offense wasn’t particularly efficient today.

But what's plaguing Cal so far? There was a similar narrative to both of their losses this past weekend, as described by norcalnick on California Golden Blogs.

Cal vs. UCLA women's basketball game thread - California Golden Blogs
Cal played great defense for 30 minutes, but UCLA scored 23 over the last 10 minutes of the game by hitting mid range jumpers and consistently getting inside and drawing fouls. The key stats: Cal shot 28% from the field and 50% from the line and had 23 turnovers. I don’t know how many possessions Cal had, but I’m going to make a leap and guess that Cal’s offense wasn’t particularly efficient today.

After having the third highest scoring average in non-conference play at 69.5 points a game, a lid has been placed on Cal's basket. In conference play, they are averaging 56.0 point per game.

The culprit?

They are neither taking care of the ball well nor moving it well. While their turnover percentages weren't that high this weekend, their turnover differential was.

In non-conference play they were sixth in the conference in turnover margin at +0.7. Thus far in three conference games, they are last at -6.0. In their heart-breaking loss to USC, turnovers were arguably the biggest problem: they turned the ball over on 19.4% of their possessions compared to USC's turnover percentage of 11.37%.

Compounding the turnover problem is a decline in ball movement, as approximated by synergy rating. In simpler terms, while their assisted field goal percentage was 50% in non-conference play it dropped to 41.18% against UCLA and 30.77% against USC.

In other words, between turnovers and lower assist ratios, their offense is not running nearly as smoothly in conference play.

Of course, the strength of schedule has to be taken into account - they were playing on the road against solid defenses and a gutsy USC team. So where's the hope?

"They have very good players," said Jackson. "Positions 1 through 5, doesn't matter what substitutions Joanne makes. And they've got a player in Alexis Gray-Lawson who is not allowing that team to take a break at any moment. I see her grabbing her teammates, yelling at her teammates and in a good way because she understands what the demands are at Cal and has been a part of the success at Cal and is kinda setting that bar for them pretty high. So at any given moment, those players can go off. They're extremely gifted."

Despite the slow start, any young, athletic basketball team with an experienced leader and a standout freshman is definitely a team worth continuing to follow, if not root for.

Transition Points:

  • After the USC-Stanford game, someone said of Stanford during a G-chat: "UConn made them look like a [high school] team. So how good is UConn?" Excellent question.
  • This weekly Pac-10 review was theoretically going to show up yesterday and every Tuesday. However, that annoying thing called “life” got in the way and it’s much easier for me to promise it on Wednesday.
  • I'm tossing this out there for people to reflect on -- worth a read in light of Washington's potential success.

    SLAM ONLINE | » Women’s Pac-10 Matters
    But let’s paint a rosy picture. Cooper and Caldwell get it going in L.A.; Westhead revitalizes Oregon; Niya Butts finds the magic in Tucson; Tia Jackson’s replacement in Seattle lights a fire; and the three existing powers stay at the same level. Now, you’ve got a real league, and now fans have a reason to go to Pac-10 games. Now ESPN will push for some of those games on its national broadcasts, and maybe some will be moved to more East Coast-friendly times. And, perhaps most important of all, now young West Coast stars will no longer feel the need to go to UConn (as Diana Taurasi and 2011 superstar Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis both did), which will further fan the flames of success on the Left Coast.