As the rain pelted the Manhattan pavement outside Madison Square Garden late Tuesday evening, inside Tony Wroten sprinted and slashed, waving recklessly at the ball like a gangly child swatting at an air bubble.
Specks of Husky purple were sprinkled amid the overwhelming black emptiness of the Garden’s lower bowl, and the freshman point guard was desperately trying to push Washington to the finish, push his Huskies past Darius Johnson-Odom and the Marquette Golden Eagles. Wroten is like most of the Huskies, athletically superior and moving up and down the floor at a speed the human lung doesn’t agree with.
But with 24 seconds remaining, Washington ball and trailing 76-75, Wroten found himself in a place not uncommon for freshmen who struggle from the free-throw line and often forget the brake is on the left.
And after a Terrence Ross jumper in traffic gave the Huskies hope and the lead, Marquette’s Vander Blue found Jae Crowder in the corner on a broken play as the clock ticked below seven seconds. Crowder gathered the pass, set his feet and hit the 3-pointer that would give the No. 11 Golden Eagles a 79-77 victory – improving them to 8-0 – and send the Huskies into the night losers looking for remedies.
The scene – a 9:40 EST weekday tip-off that left the Garden dull and lacking its usual punch – fit this 4-3 Washington team that currently sits among middle-class neighbors in the Pac-12 but holds the conference’s pride in its palm in New York this week. The Huskies possess prime-time athletes with big-time ability, but it isn’t a team worthy yet of the big stage, the big lights that the eastern power programs test their mettle under weekly.
In a conference that doesn’t have one team ranked in the top 25 – the 8-1 Stanford Cardinal will be probably be there when they open Pac-12 play against UCLA on Dec. 29 – the Huskies are in a prime position to become the alpha male in the West. Washington poses issues that few teams around the country will be able to counter, but they are issues birthed from athletic prowess more than basketball skill.
Wroten, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds off of the bench against Marquette, gets more leash than most freshmen would, but it’s because Washington coach Lorenzo Romar sees what he has. He sees the 6-foot-5, 205-pound body that Johnson-Odom – a polished, senior guard – struggled to stay in front of. He sees the point guard who can not only expose, but maul and abuse a smaller body on the block.
But Wroten’s brilliance is continually engaged in war with his better basketball judgment. For every assist there is a turnover, for every spectacular drive and dish, there’s a juke, jive and wild miss. Wroten’s strength is that he feeds the Husky engine and keeps it running at a suffocating pace, but too often it is the zooming blur of purple that has yet to pass by an 18-footer without at least asking it out for a drink.
Yet it all comes back to a balance that Romar clearly struggles with: How much to let go, when to pull back? When Romar allows his Huskies to run free, guards Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox become a maddening duo to halt.
Ross scored 19 points and pulled down nine boards against Marquette, and Wilcox added 15 and three, respectively, of his own. They are playmakers, shooters with no sense of a moment’s magnitude, willing and able to pull the trigger at all times. They crash the boards, looking for easy points on put-backs, and circle the baseline with their index fingers hoisted to the roof, hoping Wroten or junior Abdul Gaddy will spot them from the top of the key and oblige with a lob.
To Washington’s credit, its energy transfers to the defensive end, where the Huskies swarm the ball and at least attempt to clog passing lanes. Washington had seven blocks against Marquette and didn’t allow the Golden Eagles to claim their first lead until 14 minutes into the game. The Huskies came into Tuesday evening fourth in the country in rebounding (42.7 rpg) despite not having more than one player taller than 6-8 who sees regular minutes; they grabbed 43, 12 more than Marquette, in this game.
The size, or lack thereof it, and the thirst for a style of basketball heavy on speed and short on strength, speaks to the foremost problem for Washington. Aziz N’Diaye, a 7-footer from Senegal, is the Huskies’ only true big man. He had 12 rebounds and two blocks against Marquette but offers little in the form of offensive competence. The other frontcourt players who see regular time – 6-8 Darnell Gant and 6-7 Desmond Simmons – fall into the trap of Wilcox’s and Ross’ game, popping jumpers from the perimeter instead of establishing even a semblance of a threat in the paint.
The Washington D is hard on the outside with a jelly center. Marquette’s Johnson-Odom and Junior Cadougan slashed and dished, and when they got bored with that, they simply slashed and scored. Nobody called them on it, nobody had to pay a fee of admission for entering the big boys’ estate.
Playing man-to-man defense – like Washington did for the majority of the evening – the Huskies can hang because they are athletes above all else. It’s tough to imagine a group with more raw ability than this one. But when their anchor, N’Diaye, earned his fourth foul with 7:08 remaining and had to exit, the Huskies switched to a 2-3 zone, knowing their then-one point lead would dissipate upon the next Marquette possession.
Of course, as the Washington contingent that had traveled to New York stood and grasped as the seconds waned down, the lead did dissipate. It dissipated on a night when the Huskies could have made a statement. A statement for themselves, a statement for the Pac-12.
One win wouldn’t have earned much in the eyes of national critics, but it would have set up Saturday’s contest at the Garden against Duke as a tipping point game for the Huskies. Win that, and the West has at least one team with aspirations beyond the NIT.
It still does, as the season hasn’t shed its adolescent years yet. Washington will challenge Stanford and Cal and Oregon State. It may run them over, too.
But, for now, the Huskies sprint and slash, waving wildly at the ball like Tony Wroten does. Perhaps one day, maybe one day soon, that hemi of a motor that defines this team will blend with poise and tough defense to concoct a force.
Not now. Not on a night when the Garden sat rather still and Tony Wroten waved recklessly to no avail.