Part of what makes the Washington Huskies 62-60 home loss to the USC Trojans tough is that you might have assumed they would come out as confident and intimidating as they did early in the season.
But tonight that focus they once on the court - literally terrorizing opposing players into turnovers - was gone.
Off the court, the once-confident Pac-10 favorite seemed like a team in disarray in their final press conference of the regular season.
"A lot of the stuff we do, it's a lot of improv stuff - whether it's me and Isaiah setting ball screens or guys just finding the open spots," said senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who had 11 points and a team-high six rebounds. "I think we're becoming a lot [more] set oriented; a lot of times, as soon as we get a rebound we're out and just playing basketball whereas today it felt like a lot of the times - not just the guards, but everybody - I even caught myself looking at the coach thinking, 'What set are we running?' I think we just need to get back into the mode of just playing basketball, not out there worrying about running the right play."
Players gave various responses for the type of breakdowns on both ends of the court that happened throughout the including not getting stops, not playing hard enough, playing hard enough but not having enough to battle USC inside, and of course not hitting shots.
At first, the only common theme to take away from their post game comments appears to be that this has somehow become a team that has lost its confidence.
"Guys aren't hitting their normal shots," said junior guard Isaiah Thomas, who finished with a team-high 16 points. "Usually when you're not doing that as a ball player, your confidence level kind of goes down and you don't want to be aggressive as you usually are, take the shot you usually take. We just gotta turn the page."
Nevertheless, there were three themes that seemed to be consistent among everyone.
Inability to stop penetration
In the first half, UW's inability to stop USC's guard penetration - particularly from Jio Fontan, who finished with 20 points - caused them to fall behind by as many as 15 points.
"He just drove us," said Venoy Overton, who had an impressive game as a starter with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists, and no turnovers. "That's what he did - he drove us and he found his bigs."
Fontan showed a remarkably quick first step, regardless of who was guarding him, and once he got into the paint, he was able to pull up for jumpshots, dish off to post players, get to the rim, or draw fouls and get to the free throw line, as his 10-for-12 free throw shooting attests to. Once help defense rotated over to guard him, there was literally nothing stopping senior Alex Stepheson from just cutting baseline for an uncontested dunk.
The "small ball" rotation
Yet even when Fontan was out of the game due to foul trouble, the Huskies struggled to contend with USC's post players. For as well as they played, a large part of that was that UW coach Lorenzo Romar chose to go small, using a lineup with Scott Suggs in Aziz N'Diaye or Darnell Gant's place for much of the game. Terrence Ross - who played well against USC in their first meeting - didn't play at all. And although Justin Holiday did an admirable job on Nikola Vucevic, the it still left Bryan-Amaning to deal with two bigs stronger than him in the paint.
"[Against] one of them - or both of them 6-foot-10, both of them weigh more than I do - just trying to battle and grab rebounds, but against two of them I just felt that I need help out there on the glass," said Bryan-Amaning. "But I just tried to do everything I could with the situation."
Romar cited dissatisfaction with Aziz N'Diaye's play as the reason he only played 12 minutes - four in the second half - and left Bryan-Amaning out there trying to handle the posts alone.
"He's not playing like he can play," said Romar when asked about N'Diaye. "He's missing easy shots, he's not catching passes. We did get out-rebounded and I think it has a lot to do with him being out of the game. I think Aziz is one of those players who you may want more from him - he makes a difference on defense. Tonight the ball screen hurt us and Aziz had a little trouble with the ball screen. But rebounding and defensively, he really helps us. So we just have to pick our spots and decide what matchups are best to play in what minutes."
The obvious result of going small without N'Diaye is that they lose the person that plugged a rebounding hole that was harped on by most observers early in the season.
"We had a terrible rebounding issue when Aziz was coming off the bench, if anybody remembers," said Romar. "When Aziz was put inserted in the starting lineup, I think we got out-rebounded twice...that's why I call him at times the unsung, under-appreciated hero."
The result was getting that UW got beat 38 to 28 on the boards, 11 to 8 on the offensive boards, and 18 to 9 in second chance points. To UW's credit, they did improve their defensive intensity in the second half - they held USC to 30 percent shooting in the second half but neither being able to control the boards nor stop penetration undermined that.
Of course, UW's own inability to score down the stretch hurt them but it's difficult to ignore these problems as more persistently painful throughout the game. More importantly, it was obvious how important this team's defensive intensity is to their overall performance - their defense triggers their offensive confidence and that was evident tonight when their second half runs began on the defensive end.
It's unlikely this team has suddenly forgotten how to shoot (or make layups) - you have to believe, spacing or poor ball movement aside, that some of these shots will start falling again. But the wavering defensive intensity, inconsistent performance from N'Diaye, and the resulting poor rebounding are the things that hurt them tonight that were both maybe surprising and need to be corrected.
And maybe stunned is a good word to describe what the Huskies were tonight - in comparison to past games, they just seemed in a state of disbelief about what happened tonight but knew that, ultimately, they can do better.
So while this doesn't bode well for moving forward, Romar is still hopeful.
"Our guys understand that our backs are really, really against the wall right now," said Romar, looking ahead to the Pac-10 tournament. "But if we can just come out and be aggressive, hit a couple of shots early, I think things will work out well for us."