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Cal Basketball

Washington Preview: Huskies Can Clinch Title at Haas

February 27, 2019
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Washington can clinch the outright Pac-12 regular season championship Thursday night against Cal at Haas Pavilion. The Huskies (22-5, 13-1) have already secured at least a tie for the title and need one win in their last four games to secure the crown for themselves. The Bears (5-21, 0-15) are riding a school record 16-game losing streak and will be hard-pressed to keep it from hitting 17 against the raging Dawgs.

The success of Washington, which finally nudged into the AP poll this week at No. 25, is a mild surprise but not a total shock. Picked for fourth in the preseason poll, the Huskies rolled while watching Oregon and UCLA go down in flames and Arizona State lose enough games it shouldn’t have to mount only a weak challenge.

But as smooth as their path appears, the Huskies say they are taking nothing for granted.

“I don’t know what cheese we’re on,” second-year Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins said after Saturday’s victory over Colorado that clinched the tie, “but don’t eat it. We just got to keep getting better. It’s a long season. We still have four games left in the regular season and we want to be playing our best basketball.”

The Huskies started playing their “best basketball,” from almost the moment Hopkins stepped on the campus. The long-time Syracuse assistant brought Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense and a whole lot of hope, considering the 9-22 team he inherited. He figured he would turn things around, but probably did not anticipate this much success this quickly. The Huskies were 21-13 a year ago and have already surpassed that win total.

“You never know what the timeline is,” Hopkins told the Seattle media. “You just go out there and you get a great staff. You put your system in and you coach your butt off everyday you get up.”

And it seems to work. “Learnability was fast,” Hopkins said, “but I always had a vision of knowing we could definitely do this. I just didn’t have a timeline.”

With the benefit of four seniors on the roster -- four more than Cal has -- the Huskies are the best defensive team in the Pac-12. They give up an average of just 63.6 points per game, 60.9 in conference play, tops in the league. In the first meeting, Jan. 19 in Seattle, Cal managed just 51 points, a season low.

The Huskies have forced 439 turnovers, most in the conference, and their average of 16.3 per game ranks ninth nationally. Almost fifty percent of the turnovers have resulted in points.

“You know they are going to be in a 2-3 zone, but it is unlike any zone in our league,” Cal coach Wyking Jones said Wednesday. “They are so good at it. And the key to their zone, what makes it so good, is Matisse Thybulle. … He is the one piece of their zone that makes it special.

“To be effective against it, you want to go to the high post, but that’s where he lives, that’s where he makes plays, so it’s tough.”

The 6-5 senior was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season and is favorite to repeat. He was conference Player of the Week for his work last weekend against Utah and Colorado. He averaged 13.5 points, 6.0 steals, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in two UW wins.

Overall, his defensive numbers are mind-boggling. Thybulle leads the nation in steals by a wide margin at 3.56 per game. His career total of 301 is a school record and second all-time in the conference.

He is also 20th in blocked shots (2.30 per game), and is the only player shorter than 6-7 who ranks among the nation’s top 30 in blocked shots. Over the past eight games, he has 44 steals, an average of 5.5 per game, and he had at least three in each of those games. That is more than a lot of teams manage in a similar stretch.

“You don’t know where he’s at,” Hopkins has said. “He goes invisible. and then he’s behind you. You just don’t know where he’s at. He’s incredible. He’s got a gift. He does something better than anybody does in the country.”

He is hardly a one-man gang. Sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, who was the Huskies leading scorer as a freshman last year, is at it again, topping the team at 16.1 points per game. He has reached double-figures in 54 of the 61 games he has played. He also leads UW with 95 assists. He is a finalist for the Jerry West Award as the country’s best shooting guard, the only Pac-12 player still in the running.

Senior Noah Dickerson is second in scoring at 12.7 ppg, and is the team’s leading rebounder at 6.6 per game. He was All-Pac-12 first team a year ago.

Jones is not willing to give up all hope. “The first time we played them, we came out and had a great first half, built a lead in the first half,” Jones said. “Then they came out and made a run late to win the game. I feel good about tomorrow’s game. We had a great practice yesterday.

“In Arizona, we competed. I felt like we did a really good job in the first half defensively. Arizona shot 38 percent and had 30 points in the first half at home. Arizona State, 26 percent and 28 points in the first half. So we did our job defensively in both games the first half.”

Jones noted that in both instances, the Bears played defense in the first half directly in front of their own bench, so the coaches could give advice from the sidelines. “Our challenge when the defense is not in front of our bench, and our guys have to talk to each other and communicate and we’re not there to help them, we struggle a little bit,” he said. “… So that’s a cause for concern and we’ve got to get better at it.”

Notes

Cal leads the all-time series, 84-81, but the Huskies have won the last three.  … UW has forced opponents into double-digit turnovers in 18 consecutive games, including a season high 24 forced at Arizona State ... Washington is second in the nation in blocked shots, averaging 6.0 per game as a team and are 10th in steals (9.0) per game ... only UW and Duke rank in the top 10 nationally in both categories. ...Thybulle is a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. ... Washington is giving up just 63.0 points in its six Pac-12 road games. ….Each of those six opponents have shot below its season percentage against the Huskies.

 
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