University of Washington Huskies guard Venoy Overton can't exactly articulate what it is that changes when he comes into the game off the bench.
"A lot of games we have a lot of slow starts and I was like, 'Here we go again'," said Overton after UW's 98-72 win over Eastern Washington tonight. "I knew once I got in there that I was going to pressure up. It's kinda like, you know, just rewinding the games and it seems like it always happens like that: I come in and it changes or something. It magically changes. I expected it and that's what happened."
But there's a good chance that opponents might have some idea of what it is: defense.
Both Overton and Thomas said after their blowout of McNeese State on Sunday that the Cowboys' point guards looked a little intimidated. Similar symptoms of guard intimidation showed up tonight in the play of EWU guards: there were the steals, but also bad decisions leading to passes thrown out of bounds or players panicking and picking up their dribble five to seven feet beyond the 3-point arc.
Thus far, the Huskies backcourt has imposed game-changing pressure on their counterparts.
"We want them to be scared of us," said Thomas, whose defense overshadowed his offensive performance tonight with a game-high five steals. "So we gonna do everything we can for them to be scared."
Of course it would be premature to make definitive statements about just how good this defense might be - the Huskies roster probably would have overwhelmed EWU defensively even if they were healthy, which they weren't in missing Roosevelt High School grad Glen Dean at the point.
"I think that we aren't going to play against anybody with the speed and quickness that Washington has," said Eastern Washington coach Kirk Earlywine. "They play at unbelievable speed and we can't replicate that in practice."
Nevertheless, the way in which opposing guards seem spooked after bringing the ball up the court is noteworthy and at least shows a level of dedication to the defensive end that bodes well going forward even if things weren't even close to perfect just yet.
"I was more disappointed, again, with our lack of an edge - we just didn't play with that edge all around the floor," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. "We did more in the second half and within minutes the lead opened up. That's how we're supposed to play. It's just a lesson: as a team in the non-conference that's growing, this is not the finished product. We have to get to where that's just the way we play all the time."
By no means are the University of Washington Huskies a finished product at this point but if anything is emerging as something of an identity at this early stage in the season, it would definitely appear to be Husky defense.
Key statistic: turnover percentage
It's extremely difficult for a team to win games when they're turning the ball over on nearly a third of their possessions and that's what happened to EWU tonight.
After EWU jumped out to a 9 to 3 lead with 16:54 left in the first half while keeping turnovers to a minimum, Overton came in to replace Abdul Gaddy in the backcourt and the whole tenor of the game changed: it was from that point on that EWU committed the majority of their 14 first half turnovers (more than a third of their possessions) leading UW to a 21 to 4 advantage in points off turnovers in the first half.
Although UW's defensive intensity picked up significantly on the boards in the second half - the Huskies allowed EWU to grab only 29 percent of the offensive rebounds available to them compared to 50 percent in the first half - the backcourt pressure, turnovers or not, completely disrupted the EWU offense throughout the game. The second half certainly turned out to be more dramatic with EWU guards committing more turnovers that led to a 16 to 6 differential in fast break points in the second half compared to only six in the first half. But the defensive intensity was present throughout the game in one way or another.
"They were organized offensively," said Romar after the game. "They knew exactly what they wanted to do, who was going to take shots, and they were the kind of team that, if we didn't guard them, they would've scored a lot more points. I thought, overall, we did a pretty good job guarding them."
That first half defensive intensity after their slow start began with the play of Overton.
Key player: Venoy Overton
Perhaps viscerally Overton's defense seems to loom larger as the entire team tries to figure out life after Pondexter. Yet Overton's defensive intensity certainly shouldn't be a surprise for anyone that's watched play during his career.
"It's nothing, nothing different," said junior guard Isaiah Thomas, who finished with nine points including 4-for-4 shooting from the free throw line. "When he comes out and does what he does - picking up full court - and getting after it. And he did that. And I got a couple of steals and he got steals and it went good."
However, perhaps the even more impressive aspect of Overton's game with the team struggling to find an answer against EWU's 2-3 zone was his performance as a distributor: Overton had eight assists to only two turnovers, which you don't need a calculator to figure out is pretty good.
"I guess when I come in and the energy goes up, you know, this year is like way better for the players around me," said Overton. "I've been telling them and they know, when I'm driving or something to just circle around me or get in an open spot because I'm gonna find them and that's what I think I'm doing a better job of this year - trying to be a better playmaker."
While Overton might have had his biggest impact on defense, his offensive impact came from his aggression driving to the basket and finding shooters open shooters in the half court- not to mention errant shooters when they shot 5-for-19 from the 3-point line in the first half - or leading the break and feeding players on the break.
And as good as Overton was as a distributor, Gaddy might have been more impressive offensively beyond his career-high 13 points.
UW Statistical MVP: Abdul Gaddy
For so long, the rap on Gaddy has been his struggle to play with confidence and asserting himself in the Huskies offense. Tonight he looked like the poised player that we saw flashes of last season, with the shooting perhaps coming as a surprise.
"It's a little easier: since he's knocking down shots he can be more of an off-guard sort of," said Overton when asked whether his game changed when playing next to Gaddy. "It's just like playing with Scott [Suggs] or Isaiah. Nothing changes at all. He can bring it up and he really preferred me to bring it up, he said, so nothing changed."
However, his six assist to zero turnover ratio was also impressive in that he didn't necessarily make the highlight reel assists that Overton went for, but just seeing him play with such confidence and assertiveness on both ends was an encouraging sign for his continued development. Not only that, Gaddy is showing the capacity to inspire the team.
"I think when they went to zone and there wasn't any pressure," said Romar, who also pointed out the 14 to 2 assist-to-turnover ratio between Gaddy and Overton. "So kinda even though we still had 22 points in transition, they still got back in that zone and tried not to let us run. And we still managed to manufacture 98 points with that. And those guards had a lot to do with that, handling the basketball."
EWU Statistical MVP: Kevin Winford
While the Huskies made halftime adjustments and clamped down on quite a few players in the second half in addition to limiting EWU offensive rebounding opportunities, EWU guard Kevin Winford did step up, shooting 4-for-5 from the field in the second half and finishing with a team-high 14 points overall. Yet although Winford had an efficient scoring game, the rest of the team didn't - they relied heavily on what Romar described as being "outscrapped".
"They still shot almost 46 percent," said Romar. "Those were scrap points. I think they outscrapped us; that'd be the one negative I'd have with our game, with our team tonight. I think they outscrapped us. Offensive boards and loose balls, I think, is what led to easy field goals for them."
But scrapping didn't prove to be a sustainable plan for success for EWU tonight. Ultimately, UW's athleticism, intensity, and versatility across their roster simply overwhelmed the Eagles. And Earlywine was left impressed.
"They should have legitimate hopes of playing in the Final Four," said Earlywine. "Their guard play is that good. Overton is such a good on ball defender. [Matthew Bryan-Amaning] is playing really well in the middle as well and if their big boy [center Aziz N'Diaye] can keep coming along then they will have a very good team. Washington is a team that will continue to get better and they should have legitimate hopes of making the Final Four."