For the first time since 2011, the Washington Huskies basketball team has entered the national rankings. Following an impressive 49-36 victory over then-No. 13 San Diego State, the team is off to a 7-0 start, landing them at No. 17 in the country in both major polls. But is Husky basketball really back? A.K.A. can this team get back to the NCAA tournament?
Head coach Lorenzo Romar‘s 2014-15 squad is a little different than some of his best team’s in the past. There isn’t a standout scorer (Nigel Williams-Goss leads the team in scoring average at 14.7 points per game). It’s not high-scoring (the team is 148th in the nation in points per game), though the Huskies still like to run the floor in transition. However, what makes UW such a dangerous team is what they do on the defensive end.
The primary reason for UW’s success on defense is the length of their bigger players and the 2-3 zone that Romar likes to run. The emergence of backup center Robert Upshaw as a shot-blocker has forced opposing team’s to score from the outside, and even then his athleticism comes into play. Upshaw is averaging nearly five blocks a game. Bulked-up forward Jernard Jarreau is finally healthy, and his 240 pounds finally match his 6-foot-10 frame. Jarreau’s not going to light up a stat sheet, but his length creates problems for other teams (7-foot-7 wing span!). Forward/Center Shawn Kemp Jr. has also become a major force after coming back from battling Graves disease last year. Kemp looks like he’s in the best shape of his UW career for his senior campaign, showing glimpses of his father’s athleticism and high-flying ability. Fellow senior Mike Anderson is the “hustle” player who does the dirty work and is arguably the best guard defender on the team. Playing great defense will allow the Huskies to stay in games that they may not have been able to in the past few years.
Add the presence of the exciting guard combination of the savvy Williams-Goss and the electrifying Andrew Andrews, and it looks like the Huskies have what it takes to make their first tournament since Isaiah Thomas‘ last year at UW. There’s also many role players getting significant minutes and making a difference, including Darin Johnson, Quevyn Winters, and freshman Donaven Dorsey, who has become the main shooting threat.
It’s very early, and there’s a lot that can happen before March, but Washington fans certainly have reason to be excited. The pieces are there, but they’ll have to stay healthy. The Pac-12 is full of competitive teams, including an Arizona Wildcats squad that should contend for a national championship.
If there’s one thing that the great Washington teams have had in the past that they haven’t had this year is a player who emerges as a true leader. Nate Robinson. Brandon Roy. Jon Brockman. Isaiah Thomas. Williams-Goss seems like the most likely candidate to secure that role, but that remains to be seen.
Will the Huskies be able to sustain solid defense? Who will put the team on their back? Can they compete for a conference title? These are questions that will be answered in the coming months.
One thing is for sure: UW basketball is becoming relevant again.