In late October, Pac-12 media members, assembled in San Francisco, predictably selected Arizona to finish first in the conference basketball race. At the same time, they also forecast that the Washington Huskies would wind up sixth, a not-unexpected vote given that UW lost leading scorer C.J. Wilcox to the NBA and has been a program gripped by inertia for the past three seasons.
Now, two months later, Washington’s is one of the country’s biggest turnaround stories. At 11-0, the Huskies are off to their best start since 2005-06, Brandon Roy’s final season, and also the most recent visit by Washington to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
The Huskies are 13th in both wire service polls – highest since Nov. 22, 2010 — and ranked 13th nationally in RPI. To underscore the improvement, the Huskies were No. 97 last year and 99th the year before that. The last time a Lorenzo Romar team started 11-0, it finished with a No. 35 RPI ranking.
Unlike previous seasons, when Washington bloated its non-conference record with a spate of cupcakes, the Huskies already scored two victories over ranked opponents, 49-36 over then-No. 13 San Diego State Dec. 27, and 69-67 over No. 15 Oklahoma a week ago at the MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas.
This is the first year Washington has defeated two non-conference opponents ranked among the top 15.
Washington is one of only eight Division I schools undefeated as the non-conference season comes to a conclusion. For the Huskies, that will happen Sunday when they host Stony Brook (7-6) of Long Island, NY., and the American East Conference, in advance of the Pac-12 opener Friday at California.
The Seawolves don’t look like much (the South Dakota State Jackrabbits didn’t either three years ago, before trouncing Washington’s eventual Pac-12 regular-season champions 92-73 at Alaska Airlines Arena), having lost all six road games. If UW can avoid ennui, it will move into a third-place tie for the best start in school history in the NCAA Tournament era (since 1939):
|1975-76||Marv Harshman||14-0||23-5||L to Missouri 1st round NCAA tourney|
|1938-39||Hec Edmundson||13-0||20-5||Not invited (lost last 2 to Oregon)|
|1946-47||Hec Edmundson||12-0||16-8||Not invited to NCAAs (invitation only)|
|1941-42||Hec Edmundson||11-0||18-7||Not invited to NCAAs (6 conf. losses)|
|2005-06||Lorenzo Romar||11-0||26-7||NCAA Sweet 16, lost to UConn in OT|
|2014-15||Lorenzo Romar||11-0||TBD||Huskies face Stony Brook Sunday|
|1950-51||Tippy Dye||10-0||21-6||2-1 record in NCAAs at Kansas City|
|1969-70||Tex Winter||8-0||17-9||No tourney, went 7-7 in conference|
|1990-91||Lynn Nance||7-0||14-14||No postseason after 5-13 conf. record|
As Pac-12 media forecast, this was not supposed to be a very good Washington team, no better than last year’s 17-15 club that went 9-9 in conference play and was ousted by Utah 67-61 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
In addition to losing Wilcox and fellow seniors Desmond Simmons and Perris Blackwell, Romar’s returnees did not seem to have enough inside muscle to contend. But Shawn Kemp Jr., has been a revelation and newcomer Robert Upshaw a sensation in a limited but well-defined role.
Through his first three seasons, Kemp, son of the former Sonics icon, averaged 1.6, 6.3 and 4.4 points a game, and less than a rebound a game. But after intense weight-room work and an improved diet that helps manage symptoms of Graves disease, Kemp is averaging 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds while hitting 65.3 percent of his shots – 10 percent better than any year of his UW career.
A seven-foot sophomore transfer from Fresno State who sat out last season, Upshaw took all of four games to enter the Washington record books with eight blocks against San Jose State. With 51 rejections, he’s not only the NCAA leader, he is 16 blocks away from matching the UW single-season record of 67 with the conference schedule in front of him.
If Upshaw could be classified as a one-man team, he would rank 72nd out of 345 D-1 teams in blocks per game (4.6).
Upshaw is foul prone and free-throw challenged (44.4 percent), but has made a huge defensive difference, the main reason they executed such a turnaround.
Washington is allowing 58.4 points per game (while scoring 72.1), not only the lowest of the Romar era but on pace for the lowest since 1960 (current team shown for comparison purposes):
|2014||Lorenzo Romar||58.4||11-0||Huskies 18-0 to start 2014-15 season|
|1960||John Grayson||58.6||15-13||2-9 conference mark doomed Huskies|
|1984||Marv Harshman||58.7||24-7||Won Pac-10, lost to Dayton in NCAAs|
|1985||Marv Harshman||58.8||22-10||Won Pac-10, lost to Kentucky in NCAAs|
|1953||Tippy Dye||59.1||28-3||Reached Final Four in Kansas City|
|1963||John Grayson||59.2||13-13||6-6 league mark kept UW out of tourney|
|1961||John Grayson||59.7||13-13||Had a tepid 6-6 record in league play|
The final reason UW has been successful is it re-commitment to rebounding. With Upshaw at 7.1, Mike Anderson at 5.7 and Nigel Williams-Goss at 5.5 per game, the Huskies are averaging 40.5, up from 34.5 last year.
It’s too early to know whether Romar is coaching one of his better teams. The Pac-12 schedule is always a humbling gauntlet. Non-conference records rarely provide substantial clues. But a good sign is that the Huskies have three come-from-behind wins in 11 outings and have won five times without a loss away from Alaska Airlines Arena.