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Utah basketball: Utes prepare for improved Huskies

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North Carolina guard Patrick Crouch (30) goes to the basket as Washington forward Justin Holiday (22) defends in the first half of an East Regional NCAA tournament third-round college basketball game, Sunday, March 20, 2011, in Charlotte, N.C. Washington guard C.J. Wilcox (23) and Washington forward Darnell Gant (44) look on. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By Tony Jones

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 07 2014 03:21PM
Updated Jan 8, 2014 09:50PM

They have struggled mightily at times this season, losing at home to UC Irvine as proof.

They are in the midst of breaking in a freshman point guard. The big man they were counting on to anchor the interior is out for the season with a shredded knee. They have six losses already, and probably won’t make the NCAA Tournament.

Not much about Washington’s résumé suggests the Huskies are a serious threat to anyone in the Pac-12, much less Utah, which will visit Alaska Airlines Arena on Wednesday night. That is, until you actually see them play basketball. Then the talent becomes evident.

This is a team that’s much better than its record. C.J. Wilcox — the Pleasant Grove native — is perhaps the best shooter in the Pac-12. Nigel Williams-Goss may be a rookie, but he runs Washington’s offense with a certain aplomb that belies his age. Andrew Andrews is smooth and explosive on the wing. Perry Blackwell, a one-year, senior transfer, has been a revelation in the paint.

"C.J. Wilcox is really good," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "Washington’s received solid play from their big men and as a team they get out in transition. We are going to have to get back and defend. They look like they have really improved since the start of the non-conference schedule."

That improvement was apparent this past weekend. The Huskies went to Arizona State and handled a Sun Devils team that most considered good enough to challenge for the top half of the Pac-12. Two days later, they went to Tuscon and led No. 1 Arizona by four points with six minutes remaining. Washington eventually wore down and the Wildcats eventually took control, but not before the Huskies sent a message to the rest of the league.

"We struggled early because we struggled early defensively," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "We’ve gotten better in that department and that’s yielded better results. I don’t think we’re a great defensive team yet, but we’re functional. We still have a ways to go."

As a result, nothing will be handed to the Utes. They will have to prepare for one of the better homecourt advantages in the league, as well as a unique four-guard lineup that pushes the ball and comes at you from many different angles.

Washington is a team that can put points up in a hurry. It’s pace can snowball on you and force a team like Utah out of the comfort zone of a more moderate tempo. It’s a big game — and a big week — for the Utes, who have the chance to move above the .500 mark for the first time since they entered the league.

Utah defeated the Huskies on the road last season. Doing it again is shaping up as quite a challenge.

tjones@sltrib.com

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