Washington Huskies

Huskies must adjust quickly to life without Robert Upshaw

Lorenzo Romar is disappointed.

He admits to some frustration, too, in the wake of the dismissal of Robert Upshaw, one of the Washington Huskies’ most important players.

The UW coach still thinks highly of the talented but troubled 7-footer, despite the team rules violation — whatever it was — that prompted his dismissal. On Tuesday afternoon, Romar spoke of Upshaw’s potential, and said that he thinks he matured during his time at Washington despite his ill-timed departure.

That might be little consolation, though, to Huskies fans who wonder just how Washington (14-5, 3-4) will navigate the rest of its schedule without the best shot-blocker in school history. They’ll begin that difficult journey with an 8 p.m. game Wednesday against Stanford at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

“Any time it doesn’t work out with part of your family, you’re disappointed,” Romar said. “There’s no doubt. But I do know where things were when he first came. And I know where things are now. Even though it didn’t work out here, I still think that he grew a lot while he was here. And that’s really important.”

Romar isn’t willing to discuss the particulars of Upshaw’s dismissal, but this isn’t the first of Upshaw’s off-court troubles. An ESPN report Monday indicated that Upshaw failed multiple drug tests at Washington and Fresno State, where he played his freshman season before being dismissed for repeated violations of athletic department policy. Yahoo! Sports reported earlier this season that after Upshaw left Fresno, he spent time at John Lucas’ substance-abuse treatment program in Texas.

The Huskies took a chance on him — his engaging, intelligent personality made Romar believe it could work — and for 19 games, it paid off. After struggling to manage his off-court issues while redshirting last season — leading Romar to ban him from practices and games — Upshaw returned to the team in the summer and, once the 2014-15 season started, looked like the difference-maker he was touted as.

He leads the country with a UW single-season record 85 blocked shots — an average of 4.4 per game — and his presence in the paint turned the Huskies into one of the nation’s most difficult teams to score against.

He just couldn’t keep it together off the court. Upshaw was given several chances to “take care of business,” as Romar says. In the end, he couldn’t.

“You always try to go to whatever length possible, if someone is wanting it, to try to help someone get to the finish line,” Romar said, “and sometimes, like in this case, it just came to a point where it didn’t seem like that was going to happen.”

So, the nation’s leading shot-blocker and one of the most talented true centers to play at UW is no longer a Husky. Making matters worse: Washington has to keep playing without him, beginning Wednesday against a Stanford team that dealt the Huskies a 68-60 overtime defeat Jan. 4 in Palo Alto.

Without Upshaw, freshman Donaven Dorsey from Lacey’s Timberline High will step into the Huskies’ starting lineup. He’s listed at 6-foot-7, but his skillset — 3-point shooting, especially — resembles that of a guard, not a forward. So, as Romar put it, the Huskies will start a lineup that includes just one post player — 6-foot-9 forward Shawn Kemp Jr. — and four guards alongside him.

With 6-foot-10 junior Jernard Jarreau still recovering from knee surgery, UW’s only post player on the bench is 7-foot center Gilles Dierickx, a seldom-used junior who “will get his opportunity, no doubt,” Romar said. And the Huskies have only eight healthy scholarship players available.

Another unknown is exactly how UW will approach playing defense, from a schematic standpoint. Romar said the Huskies will still play their 2-3 zone defense, but will likely play more man-to-man than they have during their last four games.

Upshaw’s presence made the zone plausible. With his long arms protecting the rim, the Huskies were able to extend their defense and worry less about allowing dribble penetration.

That will be a major concern now, especially against Stanford guard Chasson Randle, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 20.2 points per game. His driving layup forced overtime in the final seconds of UW’s loss to the Cardinal earlier this month.

“We have to really, really make sure we’re concentrating on containing the basketball and not allowing people to get to the rim,” Romar said. “I think subconsciously, sometimes we’ve felt like ‘I’m here, I’m here, but if I do get beat, we’ve got a big shot blocker back there.’ We have to contain the ball as if there’s no one back there, even though there will be.”

But it won’t be Upshaw. And that could be a season-derailing blow for a UW team already thin in the frontcourt.

“We definitely have a depth issue now more than before,” Romar said. “I didn’t think we had a total depth issue before, in terms of playing guys, if everybody stayed healthy. But now we can’t afford for guys to foul out or get in foul trouble.”

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