As the University of Washington Husky men's basketball team heads to the Bay Area this week for two of its final three league games, maybe players ought to be thinking about signs of a brighter future rather than a less-than-successful past. The most conspicuous sign being waved in the student section of Hec Edmundson Pavilion last Saturday, Feb. 23, read: "Thanks, Ryan, for three years of threes."
It was a reference, of course, to skinny senior Ryan Appleby, who was playing his final scheduled home game. The Stanwood stalwart had become the Huskies' all-time three-point-range leader on Thursday, Feb. 21, during his team's re-emergence as a Pac-10 upset threat. The UW men had beaten Arizona 75-66, and the hand-lettered love note wafting above the Dawg Pack section Saturday seemed to carry an implicit plea to the Bee: "How 'bout maybe another 10 three balls against Arizona State today."
Instead, Appleby was just four for 15 from beyond the long stripe, and his teammates were zip for six. That meant the team was back in one-dimensional-offense mode, the Huskies trying to rely on getting the ball inside to Jon Brockman, who seemed quintuple-covered for most of the afternoon. The result was a wire-to-wire 77-63 win by a Sun Devils contingent the UW had beaten in Tempe earlier in the season. It means the Huskies are mired in an eighth-place tie in the league standings at 6-9. Even if they take the final three (improbable given they're on the road against Stanford on Thursday, Feb. 28, Cal on Saturday, Match 1, and Wazzu on Saturday, march 8), their 18-13 record (plus another likely loss at the Pac-10 postseason tournament) probably wouldn't take them much farther than the National Invitational Tournament (and at least a chance at a home game). The NIT matches middlin' teams that didn't make it to the NCAA post-season brackets. The NCAA spectacle, need it be said, is called March Madness. The once-competitive NIT, for all its modern-day insignificance, could be called March Irrelevance.
The Huskies have played their best this season when there was a premium on defense. They've never been a fast-break, turnover-oriented club. Their offense at best has only been two-dimensional, with no real big man in the middle. When the three-balls have gone down, the wins have come. When Brockman has been left alone underneath, the second dimension has been there. What the team has consistently lacked is mid-range (including free throws) and even short-range shooting. Having attended seven home games, I've observed what seems to have been hundreds of occasions when crowd groans greeted a lip-out sideline shot or an easy opportunity underneath that "clonged" off the rim and into the hands of an opponent.
Coach Lorenzo Romar, with few roster spots available (Appleby and senior guard Tim Morris apparently are the only ones leaving), will need to find better offensive decision-making and performance next year. The starters won't necessarily be any bigger, but they'll have plenty of experience, much of it from this season having been frustrating.
Fans may hope, then, that this time next year somebody from the student section brings another sign, one with an implicit message not pertaining to three-point shots but two-pointers and, from the foul line, one-pointers, which for other clubs often add up to victories.