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Originally published Friday, January 4, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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Huskies' biggest problem is defense

Washington opens Pac-12 play Saturday at Washington State and still isn't playing the kind of defense coach Lorenzo Romar would like to see.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ WSU, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU

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This is on ESPNU? Looks like the Pac-12 Network opted for Stanford mens volleyball... MORE
In the Huskies game tonight against WSU in Pullman, the UW has no one that can defend... MORE
Ah, that's why Ro misses the big stars. they don't want to tire themselves our playing D MORE

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Contrary to popular belief, the problems plaguing Washington's men's basketball team have little to do with C.J. Wilcox's occasional off-shooting performance, Abdul Gaddy's inconsistent stewardship of the high-post offense or Aziz N'Diaye's inability to avoid foul trouble.

The Huskies' biggest concern as it opens Pac-12 play 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Friel Court against cross-state rival Washington State is much more basic and worrisome.

They don't play defense very well. Especially on the perimeter.

That's not the opinion of courtside observers. It's an admission from the Huskies.

"One of the things we've been working on is making sure we're guarding on the ball as a team," senior co-captain Scott Suggs said. "We got a man on the ball, but we're guarding the ball as a team and we got four other guys helping that guy on the ball.

"That's the biggest thing we've been working on."

Coach Lorenzo Romar has seen defensive improvement, but noted: "It's been a process that's taken several weeks. ... It hasn't happened overnight."

He added: "Early on, teams hurt us from the three-point line. Not as much lately."

Perhaps the most troubling part of Washington's defensive struggles is knowing the same problem was the chief culprit that spoiled last year's Pac-12 regular-season championship and kept the Huskies out of the NCAA tournament.

After the loss to Minnesota in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals in New York, Romar returned home and vowed to improve the defense.

In a rare show of frustration for the even-keel coach, he repeatedly banged his fist on the table when he said: "We must, and will, get back to guarding the way we're capable of guarding in this program. That will be the No. 1 thing."

At the time, he also stressed the importance of keeping opposing guards out of the paint, making it difficult for opponents to make shots, forcing turnovers and taking charges.

Thirteen games into the season, it can be argued the Huskies (8-5) are only marginally better defensively than they were last season, and in many areas they've gotten worse.

Washington is allowing 2.5 fewer points per game at 67.6 and on average opponents are taking fewer free throws, 16.6 per game, down from 22.5.

The Huskies rank last in the Pac-12 allowing opponents to shoot 42.3 percent from the field. They're 11th in the conference by allowing 36.2 percent on three-pointers.

Washington is 11th in the league with 4.3 steals per game, and it has forced an average of 12.5 turnovers, which is ninth.

For the second straight season, the Huskies have been unable to keep guards out of the lane. Making matters worse, they're not providing adequate help near the basket, Romar said.

Despite dreadful performances from Wilcox (five points) and N'Diaye (14 minutes, three fouls and three rebounds) and a season-worst shooting game in last week's 61-53 defeat at Connecticut, UW also lost because of its inability to keep UConn players away from the basket and off the free-throw line. UConn made 15 of 25 free throws.

The Huskies also lost because they forgot how to win games on the road.

"You have to guard when you go on the road," Romar said. "You must guard. Secondly, you have to play with poise and you have to have great shot selection. And you have to take care of the ball.

"At times last year on the road our shot selection wasn't very good, and you're committing basketball suicide."

Washington is 10th in the Pac-12, averaging 12.5 turnovers. Gaddy has 45 and is on pace for 104.

Romar blamed UW's defensive struggles on early-season injuries, which shortened the rotation to seven players and didn't allow the Huskies to play their exhausting schemes that require constant switching.

With the return of reserves Shawn Kemp Jr. (knee) and Andrew Andrews (ankle), Washington has had its full complement of players the past three games. Because the Huskies are finally relatively healthy, it should bode well for their chances Saturday.

They're 5-6 in Pullman against the Cougars under Romar.

Washington needed second-half comebacks to sweep last season's series, including a 59-55 win in their last encounter that was decided on a missed WSU three-pointer in the final 24 seconds.

"We know we're not just going to blow teams out at their place," Wilcox said. "We're going to have to grind out wins. We know it's going to be close at the end.

"The last four minutes have to be ours. We don't expect anything different this year."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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