With Jernard Jarreau injured and Robert Upshaw jettisoned for bad behavior, Shawn Kemp Jr. is all alone.
Well, not entirely alone. He still has four Washington Huskies teammates with him on the court. But he is the tallest and strongest, and the Huskies roster does not include any players his size with significant Pac-12 experience.
“I’ve just got to do what I can,” said Kemp, a 6-foot-9 senior forward who is now the only healthy post player in UW’s regular rotation. “It’s unfortunate what happened, but I’m the only big out there. It’s not like I can give up. So I’ve got to just play as hard as I can.”
Even against California, the Pac-12’s 11th-place team, which visits the Huskies for a noon game Sunday (Pac-12 Networks has the broadcast if you’re not already loading up on Super Bowl pregame fare by then) at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
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Then again, the Golden Bears (12-9, 2-6 Pac-12) already beat the Huskies this season — an 81-75 victory in Berkeley on Jan. 2, which stood as Cal’s lone conference win until it beat Washington State on Thursday — and Washington’s debut sans Upshaw on Wednesday wasn’t pretty.
The Huskies (14-6, 3-5) lost, 84-74, to Stanford, and trailed by as many as 26 points in the second half. Their problem is as easy to identify as it is difficult to remedy. Upshaw’s shot-blocking acumen — a single-season school record 85 in 19 games — leaves UW vulnerable in the middle. And with Jarreau still sidelined for another two to four weeks while recovering from knee surgery, Kemp is UW’s only available frontcourt player (aside from 7-foot junior Gilles Dierickx, who mostly sits on the bench).
The past three days of practice, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said, have allowed Washington to adjust — at least a little — to whatever tweaks they’ve made in Upshaw’s absence.
“I think we’ve made some progress,” Romar said. “I think we’ve been able to just work on some things that allow us to compete, with the personnel situation that we have — compete better.”
In particular, Kemp said, “our defense is definitely going to be different” after allowing Stanford to shoot 52.8 percent from the field.
Also, Romar said it’s “very important” that the Huskies receive consistent production from Kemp, who averages 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
“And we have to go to Shawn,” Romar said. “We can’t expect Shawn to go out there and attempt to defend, attempt to rebound and do all this, and not get the basketball. We’ve got to make sure we get him the basketball so he can make plays.”
Kemp says UW’s current personnel situation reminds him of his high-school days in Canton, Georgia, where he was the only true big man on the team. At first, he said, he figured there would be a lot of pressure on him to compensate for the loss of Upshaw, who also averaged 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds.
“But after thinking about it — I love to play this game. I love challenges,” Kemp said. “So this is just another day for me. I’ll come to practice, and we’re going to be able to pull it out. We had a rough first game back, but I feel like if I do what I need to do, the whole team will come together and we’ll be able to do what we need to do.”
Which sometimes might mean playing only guards. Toward the end of their loss to Stanford, the Huskies took Kemp (who played 24 minutes) off the court and played with a lineup of Nigel Williams-Goss, Andrew Andrews, Mike Anderson, Darin Johnson and Quevyn Winters — all guards, and none taller than 6-foot-5. Their quickness and defensive aggression helped trim the losing margin to a more respectable figure.
Don’t expect to see that look all the time — it would make rebounding and defending the interior much more difficult. But in spurts, it could be useful.
“I think the smaller lineup gave us something the other night,” Romar said. “I don’t think you can play 40 minutes that way, or 30 minutes that way, but I think there are definitely spots in the game where you can use it.”