Can Washington Huskies Sustain Sweet 16 Success Next Season?
Washington's roller-coaster season concluded last week, as the team fell to West Virginia 69-56 in the Sweet 16, also halting the Huskies' nine-game winning streak.
The team made an incredible run just to make the NCAA Tournament following a midseason lull that saw them go 7-7 and not receive even a single vote in the Top 25 polls for over two months.
That lull dampened the enthusiasm of a 10-2 start where the Huskies were ranked as high as 10th in the coaches' poll.
The peaks and valleys of Washington's season leave analysts and fans wondering about the true nature of this team and what to expect in the 2010-11 campaign.
The Huskies only lose one player to graduation, but he's an important one. Quincy Pondexter, the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season, finishes his college career as UW's third-leading scorer of all time.
Pondexter's offensive skills will be hard to replace—his leadership even more so.
That said, the Huskies bring back some excellent talent and will boast a veteran-laden team next season.
Isaiah Thomas will return as the Huskies' primary scorer and the prime candidate to take on the role of team leader. Thomas made progress across the board in his sophomore season, with improvements in points, rebounds, assists, and three-point shooting, along with fewer turnovers.
If he can maintain his efficiency while handling an increased workload, there's no reason he can't continue to get better and even challenge for Pac-10 Player-of-the-Year honors in his junior campaign.
Matthew Bryan-Amaning showed great improvement in his junior season and will look to announce himself as an All-Pac-10 candidate in his senior year. He ended this season on a strong note, averaging 11.8 points on 60 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over his last 14 games.
Point guard Abdul Gaddy struggled throughout his freshman campaign, showing flashes of ability amidst long stretches of ineffectiveness. He certainly has the skills to contribute, but he needs to regain his confidence; coach Lorenzo Romar put his confidence at five or six on a scale of one to 10.
Entering next year with a full season under his belt will undoubtedly lead to greater things from the heralded recruit.
The last returning member of Washington's starting five is Justin Holiday, who played an instrumental role in getting the Huskies' season back on track. Named to the Pac-10 All-Defensive Team, Holiday is the quintessential stat-sheet stuffer, averaging nearly six points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, a steal, and half a block per game.
Holiday flashed his long-range game in the postseason, knocking down five three-pointers in three NCAA Tournament games. If he carries that improved offensive prowess into next season, while also maintaining his excellent defense, Holiday will help make up for the loss of Pondexter.
Another player who can ease the blow of Pondexter's graduation is shooting guard Elston Turner. Known primarily for his proficiency beyond the arc, Turner also displayed the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. With his strong play in UW's two tourney wins, he is a candidate to step into the starting lineup in his junior season.
Point guard Venoy Overton should continue to wreak havoc off the bench in his senior year. Another member of the Pac-10 All-Defensive Team, Overton plays with unmatched passion and tenacity, which sometimes hurts the team as much as it helps. If he cuts down on his 2.3 turnovers per game and strives for consistency, Overton will greatly enhance Washington's competitiveness.
Guard Scott Suggs will look to work himself back into the rotation after steadily losing playing time over the last six weeks of the season (only 8.7 minutes per game compared to 16.7 in his first 22 games played).
Forward Darnell Gant also fell out of the rotation this season, logging just 11.7 minutes per game compared to 18.3 last year. His production will also prove vital to replacing Pondexter and as a backup to Bryan-Amaning.
Big body Tyreese Breshers will also look to prove his worthiness off the bench. Breshers can provide a few rebounds and blocked shots while he continues to develop. C.J. Wilcox, who redshirted this season, will likely join Clarence Trent and walk-on Brendan Sherrer as they reprise their roles as garbage-time fill-ins.
Trent is now working out with the Husky football team as a defensive end and is likely to change scholarships from basketball to football next fall. Coach Romar said he will keep playing basketball, but it's hard to envision his role changing much with his attention now split between two sports.
As far as new players, forward Desmond Simmons could also be a candidate to make up some of Pondexter's production. However, Husky fans are holding their breath on where forward Terrence Jones will sign. The coveted recruit from Portland played well in the McDonald's All-America game this week and could be UW's next superstar should he choose the school just up I-5.
With this personnel, can Washington find similar success next season? Will Romar finally advance past the Sweet 16? Can the Huskies maintain the consistency shown during their nine-game win streak for an entire season, or at least minimize the lulls?
With three seniors and five juniors on the squad, the Huskies have the experience to carry their late-season success into next year. They'll likely stick with their fast-paced, guard-driven style of play with the personnel they possess, but a big season from Bryan-Amaning could help them against taller teams with strong frontcourt games.
However, the biggest key to the 2010-11 season will be leadership. Someone will need to step into the role held by Pondexter this season, previously held by Jon Brockman and Brandon Roy, as the steadying force that keeps the team confident and disciplined.
Thomas is the best candidate to lead the team on the offensive end, but Holiday could also steer the Huskies' ship with consistency on defense and strong all-around play.
If those two embrace their new roles and keep the team focused, Washington should once again be a favorite to win the Pac-10 title—but this time play like it the entire season.
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