Already stinging from a 21-point loss at Utah, coach Lorenzo Romar and the Washington Huskies saw their problems compound with the dismissal of star center Robert Upshaw on Jan. 26.
The next day, Romar was asked to assess how the loss of Upshaw, the nation’s top shot-blocker, might affect the Huskies’ capability of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
UW stood at 14-5 which rated as somewhat of a disappointment considering their 11-0 start. Upshaw’s departure seemed to portend even tougher times, with games on tap that week against Stanford and California — teams that had already defeated the Huskies when they were at full strength.
Could the Huskies bounce back without Upshaw?
If enough players stepped up, Romar said, they would be OK. Ultimately, he concluded: “I’ll be able to tell you that more after a few games, probably.”
The Huskies have played four games since, and they’ve lost each of them — Stanford and Oregon State beat them easily, while California and Oregon needed big shots in the final seconds to escape with victories.
Regardless, Washington’s losing streak has extended to five games, and the Huskies are 14-9 overall and 3-8 in Pac-12 play — that’s good for 11th place in the conference standings, ahead of only USC – with seven games remaining in the regular season.
Forget about the NCAA tournament. With an RPI of 74 — early-season victories over San Diego State (30th) and Oklahoma (13th) have kept that number from plummeting further despite the Huskies’ recent shortcomings — it’s likely that the only way UW will find itself in the Big Dance is with a miraculous, four-day, unbeaten journey through the Pac-12 tournament.
Two of their seven remaining games are against top-15 teams – No. 7 Arizona (on Friday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion) and No. 11 Utah, the conference frontrunners. And three of their remaining games (Washington State, USC and UCLA) are on the road. UW is 1-5 in Pac-12 road games this season, though the Huskies will likely be favored against the Trojans.
Still, the Huskies might not beat anybody if they don’t figure out how to protect the rim without Upshaw swatting four or five shots per game. During their current losing streak — which includes the Utah game, in which Upshaw played — the Huskies have allowed each opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the field, a particularly telling statistic considering that UW spent much of the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage defense.
And perhaps their recent defensive failures are simply evidence of just how much of a difference Upshaw made — and just how much the Huskies relied upon him to erase defensive errors made by everyone else.
Junior guard Andrew Andrews explained last week that while UW players weren’t OK with allowing dribble penetration, they could at least funnel a driving opponent toward the middle, where they knew Upshaw and his 7-foot, 5½-inch wingspan were waiting to deter any attempt at the basket.
Hard to blame them for that. Upshaw blocked 85 shots in 19 games. But it’s worth wondering now if perhaps the Huskies relied upon his presence a little too much. It’s not helping that UW is also playing without 6-10 forward Jernard Jarreau, who started the Huskies’ first 14 games before a knee injury sidelined him for four-to-six weeks. He’s likely a week or two away from returning.
“The biggest issue is just trying to shore up maybe some of the bad habits that we developed when those guys were in there,” Romar said. “We were one of the top five field-goal percentage defensive teams in America. So we were playing good defense, but with that, there was still some slippage in some other ways.”
Upshaw’s dismissal and Jarreau’s injury have highlighted a concerning lack of depth on UW’s front line, which now features 6-9 senior forward Shawn Kemp Jr. as the only viable big man in the rotation.
At the end of last season, the Huskies could have reasonably expected to have six frontcourt players available in 2014-15 – Kemp; Desmond Simmons, who instead transferred to Saint Mary’s for his senior year; Upshaw, who has been booted; Jarreau, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL and is now recovering from another injury to the same knee; Tristan Etienne, a freshman who quit the team before the season started; and 7-footer Gilles Dierickx, who is on the team but hasn’t progressed enough to be relied upon to play significant minutes.
Add to that the defection this year of sophomore guard Jahmel Taylor, who transferred to Fresno State, and the transfer last season of guard Hikeem Stewart, who would have been a senior, and the Huskies have had an alarming number of scholarship players in recent years who either got hurt, didn’t pan out or chose to leave. As a result, their roster has only nine scholarship players. Each team is allowed a maximum of 13.
Reinforcements are set to arrive next season. Washington signed six players in its 2015 recruiting class, which is rated by Scout.com as the No. 9 class in the country. On paper, it’s one of Romar’s best. Four of the six — guards Dejounte Murray and former Clover Park star David Crisp from Rainier Beach, Eastside Catholic forward Matisse Thybulle and Pleasant Grove (Calif.) High School forward Marquese Chriss – are rated among Scout.com’s top 100 recruits in the 2015 class, and Murray and Chriss are each ranked in the top 50.
Because of such promise, any talk of Romar’s job being in jeopardy is likely imprudent. It’s worth remembering, too, that while UW is on the verge of missing four consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time in Romar’s career, the Huskies still haven’t posted a regular-season record below .500 since his debut season in 2002-03.
At a football-first school with an athletic department that has long purported to value Romar’s character and community presence, it will likely take more than a few mediocre seasons to force a regime change. Until Upshaw’s departure, UW had unquestionably improved since last season, and next year’s batch of star-studded recruits indicates the possibility of tangible progress.
So despite the tailspin in which Washington currently finds itself, hope for the program’s future might not be lost.
This season, though, has already failed to deliver on the expectations wrought by that 11-0 start and No. 13 national ranking, all of which seems so long ago now.
Christian Caple: 253-597-8437