The Washington’s men’s basketball team isn’t very good right now. Five games into a new season and they’ve already lost three times. They more closely resemble the Seattle Mariners than any other local ballclub these days and fans are pulling their collective hair out watching this squad play.
What the hell happened? This team used to be great. Head coach Lorenzo Romar used to pull in top-10 recruiting classes, used to guide his team to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, used to sit atop the conference as a perennial power each season. And then suddenly, it all changed.
Back-to-back down years have the Huskies in a precarious position. A third season of less-than-stellar performance seems to be on the horizon. Fans are questioning the direction of the program and answers — How? Why? — seem to be at an all-time low.
There’s hope for this team, certainly, but there are a number of obstacles blocking the path to achievement. The three biggest issues for the Huskies? We’ve compiled them right here.
Issue No. 1: Recruiting
It starts with recruiting, of course. If the pipeline is bare, the supply will eventually dry up. While Lorenzo Romar and his staff have continued to bring in the occasional heralded recruit (Nigel Williams-Goss, for one), the volume of talent has dwindled dramatically since the program’s heyday just a few short years ago.
In 2007, Washington inked a total of five high school players to scholarships, each of whom would play significant roles for the team going forward. That quintet essentially consisted of an entire starting five: center Matthew Bryan-Amaning; forwards Justin Holiday and Darnell Gant; and guards Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas (though Thomas would delay his enrollment until 2008 upon spending one year at a prep school). By contrast, in 2012 the Huskies signed absolutely no new players — high school or otherwise — as part of their recruiting class.
One missed season can impact a program for years. The effects of bringing in zero scholarship athletes a year ago are being felt right now with a roster punctuated by older players of average ability and younger players who are not yet comfortable at the college level. The gaps created by age and talent level are just two of the possible explanations for why this team has failed to play as a cohesive unit so far in a young season.
Where Romar and his staff have failed is in devoting a great deal of time and energy to sunk costs in the form of marquee recruits who have spurned Washington for other programs. Pursuing the likes of Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon looks sexy and feels great while the courtship process is ongoing. The fun ends, however, when the elite players align themselves with equally elite programs, such as Duke and Arizona in the cases of Parker and Gordon, respectively.
Though the Huskies have been able to land a handful of superstar prep players during Romar’s 11-year tenure at the helm, they have missed on many more. And the few five-star players who have committed to Washington have typically resided in the Greater Seattle area — Jon Brockman, Spencer Hawes, Abdul Gaddy (yeah, yeah), and Tony Wroten Jr. all come to mind. Attempting to sell an out-of-state prep superstar on the benefits of a program that has spent 60 years trying to make it past the Sweet Sixteen is not easy. The results of that sales pitch are evident in a basketball team struggling to regain a relatively brief flirtation with national relevance.
Issue No. 2: Depth and Injuries
An obvious after-effect of the problems with recruiting, this year’s Huskies lack the necessary depth to overcome injuries to key contributors on their roster. After losing forwards Desmond Simmons (arthroscopic knee surgery) and Jernard Jarreau (torn ACL) for extended periods of time, the Dawgs are left with just three healthy big men in their extended rotation: 6’9″ forwards Shawn Kemp Jr. and Perris Blackwell, and 7’0″ center Gilles Dierickx.
Many may pin the hopes and dreams of the 2013-2014 campaign on the decrepit right knee of the 6’10″ Jarreau, who was largely being counted on as an impact player this season. While Jarreau certainly has some talent in that slim, lengthy frame of his, his year-long departure should not be a season-killer for the Huskies. An undersized power forward who averaged just 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in 2012-2013, the redshirt sophomore is far from a world-beater. On a good team, he’d be a role player. On this team, he was thrust into the spotlight before falling victim to injury. Now, he’s little more than an excuse, a reason this ballclub may not achieve the goals it set for itself prior to the first game. Make no mistake about it, though, Jarreau does not take this team from sub-par to above-average, no matter how the story may be spun.
The same can be said for the 6’7″ Simmons, who should return to action by late-December. A glue guy who can defend four positions on the floor, grab rebounds, and provide the occasional scoring boost, Simmons’ presence will certainly be missed through the non-conference schedule. But upon returning to the lineup for Pac-12 play, there’s no reason to believe the junior forward will be a savior of any sort for this club.
The Huskies’ depth was poor before any injuries were incurred. Those issues have only been magnified after losing a pair of rotational stalwarts early on. The fact is, this team wasn’t great to begin with. Now, though, they’re sadly worse.
Issue No. 3: Defense (especially interior defense) and Rebounding
Defense has never been the Huskies’ strong suit, but the ability and desire to flat out do it has seemingly regressed in recent years. This year is no exception, as the Dawgs can’t seem to guard anybody wearing an opposing team’s jersey.
Through five contests this season, Washington has relinquished an average of 87 points per game to its opponents, only two of whom (Indiana and Boston College) are considered major conference programs. That the Huskies are allowing points is one thing, but the way in which they’re allowing points is perhaps most egregious.
Nearly 60-percent of the points scored on the Dawgs this year have come as a result of two-point field goals. An additional 23.4-percent of points have come via three-pointers, while 18.6-percent of all points scored have been earned at the charity stripe. Those figures alone may raise an eyebrow, but digging a little deeper into the data is an eye-opening experience.
On two-point field goals, Washington’s opponents are shooting an impressive 58-percent. By contrast, the Huskies themselves are shooting just 46-percent on two-pointers. The 12-percent variance is staggering and accounts for much of the overall scoring differential in most ballgames. When you consider that the three-point percentage margin is just two-percent (opponents are shooting the longball at a 35.8-percent clip; the Huskies at 33.8-percent) it’s clear that two-point field goals have become UW’s Kryptonite.
Breaking the data down further, the opponent shooting percentages on two-point field goals by game are as follows: 50-percent (Seattle), 67-percent (UC Irvine), 46-percent (Eastern Washington), 62-percent (Indiana), and 65-percent (Boston College). In the three contests in which Washington allowed their opponent to shoot 60-plus-percent from two-point range, the Huskies themselves shot sub-50-percent from the same depth (and sub-40-percent in the Irvine game). On top of that, they’ve been out-shot from two-point range in every game but one, the victory over Eastern Washington, a day in which they posted a 54-percent mark of their own.
The reasons for these problems with two-point field goals? It goes back to the lack of frontcourt depth, for one, but also incorporates an inability the Huskies seem to have in finishing at the rim. They attack the rack, sure, but they have trouble converting drives to the hoop. Physical strength, it seems, is an issue.
Further evidence of the aforementioned frontcourt issues rears its head in rebounding statistics. Playing much of the year with four-guard lineups (and often aligning in a zone defense in an attempt to mitigate size restraints), the Huskies have struggled on the glass. Though they’ve corralled just two fewer offensive rebounds than their foes (58 versus 60), defensive rebounding is another story. Washington has been out-rebounded on the defensive glass 140-119 so far in the early going. This pain point was punctuated, bolded, and highlighted in the game against Indiana, in which the Hoosiers out-rebounded the Huskies 47-27 and cleaned up on the defensive window to the tune of 29-14. The result for the purple-and-gold was an 18-point defeat that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard might otherwise indicate.
Breaking the data down by game reveals a narrative that aligns with the two-point scoring issues. In every game but one — the Eastern Washington matchup once again — the Huskies have been out-rebounded by their opponents. Without big bodies to crash on missed shots, the Dawgs haven’t grabbed as many boards as they need to. Those missed rebounds will continue to haunt this Washington team as the season goes on.
The moral of this lengthy, somewhat tangential story? In the short term, interior play is a glaring weakness and must resolve itself if the Huskies have any hope of making noise this year. Key contributors must stay healthy and the team must keep doing well in the few areas they’ve had success in so far — three-point shooting, more or less, and guard play on offense (the Huskies own a satisfactory assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4, which is better than that of their opponents through the first five games).
In the longer term, Coach Romar and his staff need to avoid putting all their eggs in the baskets of top-10 recruits, instead spreading their pursuit across a number of prep players more likely to actually select Washington as their college of choice. They also need to refocus their attention on local athletes who grew up watching the Huskies play, who fans might know by name, and who might inspire a following when they sign with their hometown university.
Once upon a time, Lorenzo Romar stumbled upon the formula for success almost accidentally, with a number of players he didn’t actually recruit. Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Will Conroy, and Mike Jensen represent four names the coach and his staff inherited at Washington. They also signify four Huskies who hailed from the Greater Seattle area. Fans wanted to watch these guys play and in turn the players responded by playing great for their fans. That spawned a lineage of local players donning the purple-and-gold who enjoyed similar success at UW, a pipeline that has all but dried up in the present-day. Fall back into that same winning formula, with recruits who want to be here, who understand the history of Seattle-area basketball and what it means to fans, who want to play in front of their hometown crowd, and things can improve.
There are habits of achievement that existed not too long ago inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It’s time the Huskies returned to those old habits.