Updated Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 11:56 PM
The hottest basketball team in town doesn't start anyone taller than 6 feet 2. It makes do with a seven-player rotation. And it has attempted a whopping 132 more three-pointers than free throws this season.
No excuses. It's not really a mantra for the Washington women's basketball team. It's more like an understanding. If you're going to play for coach Kevin McGuff, you're going to compete wearing blinders. You're going to maximize every day, even under circumstances that seem dire. You're going to play with pride and with ignorance when it comes to hardships and shortcomings. You're going to find a way, somehow. These things are fundamental and nonnegotiable.
That's why, quietly, the Huskies have become a great story this winter. They enter a pivotal game against No. 17 UCLA on Friday night at Alaska Airlines Arena with a 16-5 record and riding a six-game winning streak. In just Year 2 of a major rebuilding task, McGuff has Washington in position to make a run at the NCAA tournament. It's February, and the Huskies are playing games of consequence that will help the growth of this program regardless of how they fare.
It's hard to believe the Huskies are this competitive this soon. It's especially difficult to fathom when considering the Huskies have endured numerous injuries that have affected their depth and their size in the frontcourt, including the loss of McDonald's All-American Katie Collier to a knee injury. Even if they were completely healthy, this would be an incredible story. The fact they're doing it with a squad that never looks imposing in the layup line is a credit to the underrated talent and determination of the players, as well as the flexibility of the coaching staff.
McGuff has helped the Huskies overcome their deficiencies by tweaking some of his trademark coaching philosophies and discovering a different way with this team. Much of McGuff's reputation has been founded on his ability to win with dominant frontcourts and a man-to-man "packline" defense. But with this team, McGuff runs a perimeter-oriented offense that focuses on spacing, dribble penetration and three-point shooting. On defense, the Huskies alternate between their preferred man-to-man scheme and a trapping 2-3 zone.
What the Huskies lack in height and girth, they make up for in quickness and skill.
"We're a very untraditional lineup," said fifth-year senior guard Kristi Kingma, who averages 13.8 points and leads the Huskies with 61 three-point field goals. "For the amount of matchup problems we have, the other team has to play us as well. We are definitely a little bit undersized, but you have to account for how we can spread you out and shoot it and drive to the basket."
Washington's tallest starter, 6-2 forward Talia Walton, attempts nearly six three-pointers a game. The Huskies get out-rebounded badly (by 7.7 boards a game), but don't assume this team is soft. They also limit opponents to 36.5 percent shooting.
Athletic 6-foot forward Aminah Williams is an active player all over the court, averaging 10.8 rebounds and a team-leading 2.4 steals. And the guard play is stellar, led by sophomore Jazmine Davis (19.8 points per game). The Huskies can win while getting hammered on the boards because they take care of the ball, forcing five more turnovers a game than they commit, and they're a tough-minded team with a knack for executing in pressure situations.
"We are really hungry for it," Davis said. "We have a lot of critics against our team. They'll think, since we don't have height, we're going to get pummeled. They'll think because this player is injured, or because we're short in this area, we'll relent. But that's exactly why we're 16-5. We don't let any of that influence how we play."
I'll admit a bias: As a basketball fan, I have a thing for undersized teams that thrive in an untraditional manner. So I'm predisposed to like these Huskies. They play a free-flowing style, yet they're disciplined, too. And tough. They probably won't win the Pac-12 title because they're so small, but it's a joy to watch a team have success attacking the game differently.
Think back to the 2004-05 Washington men's basketball team that advanced to the Sweet 16. Lorenzo Romar has been to five NCAA tournaments since that team, but has he had a more electrifying squad?
These Huskies are a legitimate headache.
"The No. 1 thing for me is, I simply believe that you coach the team you have," McGuff said. "I looked at us at the beginning of the season, and yes, we were deficient in height, but I've always thought we have enough talent to win. We just had to dramatically change how we play."
The dramatic change has worked. The Huskies are a factor again. The public is starting to believe in this team again. It's February, and they're playing meaningful games, and you can't write off their chances to make the most of this opportunity.
No ceiling, either.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin McGuff's team has shot at NCAA berth