Way back in October, the consensus among the media covering the Washington Huskies was that, while he might not be anywhere near the team’s best player, Aziz N’Diaye was the most important to the Huskies’ chances. N’Diaye’s combination of size and experience was unique on a roster that lacked any other returning players bigger than 6-8. I called N’Diaye “invaluable” in College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 and Lorenzo Romar reiterated when N’Diaye suffered a minor knee injury in December that what his 7-footer does can’t be replaced by anyone else on the roster.
Everything we’ve learned since then has only reconfirmed this notion. Romar has spent all season searching for a fourth big man in the rotation to complement N’Diaye, senior forward/center Darnell Gant and redshirt freshman forward Desmond Simmons. He’s sorted through Martin Breunig, Shawn Kemp, Jr. and football player Austin Seferian-Jenkins, never settling on any one. Breunig has been out of the rotation since early in the conference season, but Kemp and Seferian-Jenkins are still splitting minutes.
So it should come as no surprise that N’Diaye had the best plus-minus rating among Washington regulars this season. The Huskies have outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 40 minutes with N’Diaye on the floor (excepting the Utah game, because substitution data was inaccurate). Only Seferian-Jenkins (+10.8 in limited action) has a better mark. That puts N’Diaye ahead of All-Pac-10 First Team picks and Player of the Year candidates Terrence Ross (+7.9) and Tony Wroten (+5.1).
Basically, there’s ample evidence both quantitative and qualitative of N’Diaye’s importance, which makes it odd that his presence or absence is rarely discussed as an explanation for Washington’s success or failure.
Sliced another way, the numbers again back this up. When N’Diaye has played at least 25 minutes this season, the Huskies are 7-2 with both losses by a single possession. There have been 13 games this season, largely blowouts, where N’Diaye’s minutes have been limited for no particular reason. Washington is 9-4 in those games. The Huskies went 1-1 when N’Diaye sat out due to his knee injury, including their most embarrassing loss, a 19-point home defeat at the hands of South Dakota State.
That leaves seven games where N’Diaye was saddled by foul trouble, picking up either four or five fouls and playing fewer than 25 minutes as a result. Washington has won just four of those games. Last Saturday at UCLA, the Huskies actually played better without N’Diaye. In the other two losses (vs. Marquette at Madison Square Garden and Thursday’s Pac-12 Tournament loss to Oregon State), Washington outscored the opposition with N’Diaye on the floor and lost the lead when he was forced to the bench.
N’Diaye’s fouls were particularly problematic for the Huskies against the Beavers because Gant too was in foul trouble, picking up three fouls in the first half. The stretch before halftime where Washington was forced to play without either starting big man essentially cost the team the game.
During the 14 minutes Gant and N’Diaye played together on Thursday, the Huskies dominated, outscoring Oregon State 27-17. They were outscored 61-52 with one or the other on the floor, and 14-10 during the six minutes both starters were on the bench.
With the benefit of hindsight, the game turned against Washington when N’Diaye fouled out with 3:22 to play. Lorenzo Romar responded by going small, putting Ross at power forward and Gant at center. On paper, this configuration is the Huskies’ most talented, but in practice it has been relatively ineffective, playing opponents even. The problem is that Washington simply doesn’t have enough size to defend with the 6-6 Ross at the four, allowing 84.9 points per 40 minutes. Indeed, the Huskies’ small unit allowed the Beavers to either score or get to the free throw line on every possession down the stretch. Washington could not score enough to keep Oregon State at bay.
The basketball court is not a science lab, so there is no possibility of re-running Thursday’s game with N’Diaye avoiding foul trouble. In a game as close as that was, however, everything we know suggests N’Diaye’s absence in the final minutes may have made the difference in the game and the Huskies’ season.