Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon was new on the job when he last faced Washington, but he already knew defense was the key to his team’s success.
The 19th-ranked Aggies and their defense will face a difficult challenge in slowing down the high-powered, No. 22 Huskies in Tuesday night’s Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series finale in Seattle.
When he took over at Texas A&M in 2007-08, Turgeon led the Aggies to a 15-1 start, including the NIT Season Tip-Off title. In the first semifinal of that tournament at Madison Square Garden, they defeated the Huskies 77-63 by holding them without a basket for a five-minute span in the second half.
“Our identity is defense,” Turgeon said after that win. “The previous staff built this team around defense, and we did that in the second half.”
In his three seasons, Turgeon’s teams have allowed fewer than 65 points per game. Texas A&M is holding opponents to a 64.0 average in 2009-10.
The Aggies allowed their highest point total of the season Dec. 12 in an 84-81 loss to New Mexico, but bounced back Saturday with a 71-50 home victory over The Citadel. After letting the Lobos shoot 51.0 percent, Texas A&M (9-2) limited the Bulldogs to 32.7 percent shooting - a season low for an opponent.
“It was good to get their confidence back and play the way we’re capable of playing,” said Turgeon, a former Oregon assistant. “Defense is our identity and for us to be good we have to guard. We have to guard to give ourselves a chance.”
They’ll now try to blanket one of the nation’s top scoring duos - Washington senior forward Quincy Pondexter and sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas.
After averaging no more than 12.1 points in his three previous seasons, Pondexter is experiencing a breakthrough senior year with 21.6 points per game on 56.1 percent shooting. Thomas, who led the Huskies with 15.5 points per game as a freshman, has increased that average to 19.9.
The duo has helped the Huskies (7-2) average 84.3 points per game, 12th best in Division I.
Washington has alternated losses and wins in its last four games overall, but is 25-1 at home since the beginning of last season.
The Huskies relied on that home-court advantage Saturday night, when they shot 54.8 percent in an 89-54 drubbing of formerly ranked Portland. Pondexter led the way with 17 points, while Thomas chipped in 16 with eight assists.
“We had gone on a stretch where we’d won a few and lost some, and in the midst of it still hadn’t really put in an efficient effort together and tonight we did,” coach Lorenzo Romar said.
While Turgeon has helped the Aggies win three of their last five against ranked foes, Romar’s team has lost three straight to Top 25 opponents and 15 of 20 since March 8, 2007.
Texas A&M, which holds a 3-1 lead in the all-time series, will make its first trip to Seattle since the 1982 postseason NIT. The Aggies’ only loss to the Huskies was in their first meeting, during the 1951 NCAA tournament.