A few weeks ago, someone joked that the best chance for the Seattle University Redhawks to beat the Washington Huskies tonight would be for them to somehow convince UW that KeyArena is in fact in some city other than Seattle.
Given that UW has lost four of their last five road games, perhaps that's the best strategy to make this year's game more competitive than last year's 123-76 debacle at Hec Ed.
Absent the Huskies' minds playing tricks on them, a win for the Redhawks would appear to be difficult at best. Nevertheless, at least three things stand out in trying to keep the game even reasonably respectable.
3. Stopping Isaiah Thomas
No matter who else has been stepping up to put up big numbers for the Huskies, there is little doubt that Isaiah Thomas has been the heart and soul of this team for most of the season - quite simply, if he goes off as a scorer, it's even easier for him to put pressure on the defense as a distributor and then bad things occur for the opposition.
The most effective way to limit Thomas this season has been to stick a bigger defender on him and use his size against him. But with forward Mark McLaughlin no longer with the team, it's more likely that the Redhawks will try to get the job done with a smaller player like senior guard Garrett Lever.
"I always know for sure that (there's) one guy I don't have to worry about," said Redhawks coach Cameron Dollar of Garrett Lever after he helped contain Utah Valley's Isaiah Williams, who was coming off a Great West Player of the Week award. "As long as Garrett Lever is suiting up, I don't have to do no special adjustments other than, ‘Hey - go get him!'"
Lever is energetic, quick, and strong enough to guard bigger players, but hasn't necessarily had to contend with a point guard of Thomas' caliber just yet. It's unlikely that he would be able to stop Thomas, but his ability to contain him will be important to keeping this game from getting too far out of hand.
2. Limiting turnovers against UW's aggressive defense
To put it nicely, the Redhawks are an inconsistent shooting team. That leads a lot of teams to throw a zone at them and force them to break it by either making perimeter shots or finding ways to drive the gaps. However, with a considerable size advantage and an elite perimeter defender like Venoy Overton, the Huskies could be just as effective, if not more, by sticking with a man-to-man defense and forcing Redhawks' ball handlers to prove they can make decisions under pressure.
Regardless of which defense the Huskies play, the challenge for the Redhawks will be to keep their turnovers below their average of 17.8 per game at the very least and if they dare to think they can keep the game close, they'll have to be even better than that.
1. Figuring out what to do about the pace of the game
The Redhawks pride themselves on being an aggressive, defensive, scrappy team that pushes the pace and imposes a little bit of chaos on the game. And in many instances, "the uglier the better" is a mantra that fits them well.
However, the Huskies pose another huge challenge: while Seattle U is currently the third fastest team in the nation at 77.2 possessions per 40 minutes, Washington is not far behind ranked 11th at 75 possessions per game. This puts the Redhawks in a bit of a bind.
If they get the Huskies in the type of up and down game that they usually aim for, the Huskies are so much more efficient and less turnover prone that the Redhawks could get run out of their own arena. If they attempt to slow it down, they have to contend with scoring in the halfcourt against a bigger UW team while being an inefficient shooting team themselves.
Ultimately, the Redhawks are better when they're running and it's hard to imagine them competing with a team like Washington at their normal pace. Then again, it's hard to imagine them beating much of anyone at a slower pace. As such, the pace problem might be their biggest and most fundamental challenge to overcome among the litany of other challenges one might be able to imagine.