As we creep toward the opening weekend of Pac-10 play, the only real consensus about the conference is that it will be a season-long game of follow-the-leader between Washington (9-2) and the other nine teams. With Washington State (10-2) and Arizona State (10-3) putting together strong (though, perhaps schedule-aided) non-conference performances and Cal (7-4) and USC (8-4) showing potential, it still remains to be seen how far ahead of the Pac the Huskies are going to run.
What-if's aside, though, what is Washington's potential as they stand right now? Not just in the Pac-10, but in the larger picture.
Let's take a look at what the Huskies have:
Best One-Two Punch in the Conference: The combination of senior forward Quincy Pondexter and sophomore guard Isiah Thomas is the best inside-out duo in the division. Pondexter is – if not the best – the most complete player in the Pac-10 and paired with Thomas, creates a lethal scoring threat for Washington, matched only by Cal's combo of Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher. Pondexter is averaging 22 points per game while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor and, most importantly, has found the consistency he's been missing most of his college career. That other-worldly field goal percentage, by the way, means that Pondexter has been effective from inside, a great sign for Washington. Thomas is averaging 17.5 points per game, but, like a lot of underclassmen, has had some ups and downs. Don't expect that to last though, Thomas is solid.
Several Burgeoning Third Options: The Huskies have several useful role players who have shown flashes of being effective third options. Junior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, junior guard Venoy Overton, sophomore guard Elston Turner and sophomore guard Scott Suggs have all shown ability during non-conference play. Suggs' minutes have increased lately, while starter Overton has scored in double digits his last three games. Bryan-Amaning has been an effective inside compliment to Pondexter, and Turner had an impressive couple of games in early December, but has seen his minutes drop off a bit of late. If any of these four can consistently score in double figures and provide help with rebounds or assists, that's great news.
Defense: The Huskies lead the conference in steals and rebounds per game, and turned in impressive defensive performances against Texas A&M and Portland. This will absolutely be key to their future success.
Lorenzo Romar: The man can coach. Washington fans should always feel confident with him running the show.
What Washington doesn't have:
A Consistent Third Option: A duo like Pondexter and Thomas can take you a long way, but a good defensive team – say a Kansas or Texas – can crush a team overly dependent on two players. Having another player the Huskies can use consistently to spread the floor will be essential.
Ball Control: Washington is fifth in the Pac-10 in turnovers per game, averaging almost 14 per, while conference leaders Arizona State and Stanford are much more stingy, running only 11.5 per game. The Huskies took a big step in the right direction on Sunday, turning the ball over only seven times ... but that was against San Francisco, a decidedly lesser opponent.
As of now, in the national picture, Washington is a good, but by no means elite team. It would be hard imagining them winning a 1-8 or 2-7 matchup in the second-round of the tournament, but if they handle the Pac-10 like people say they should, a seven or eight seed is nowhere in their future. Barring injury or unforeseen setback, Washington has a great chance to use Pac-10 play as a platform to grow into itself and earn a good position in the tournament. After that – as everyone knows – anything can happen.