If Huskies fans thought an entire week of practice might help Washington pull out of one of more gruesome spirals in the history of UW men’s hoops, they were wrong. They also were wrong if they believed Washington State (14-10, 5-6), even on its home court in Pullman, was mediocre enough to be vulnerable.
Worst of all on Apple Cup Sunday, the Huskies were destroyed by a local kid who got away from them.
C.J. Elleby, a 6-6 sophomore forward from Seattle’s Cleveland High School, who in September 2017 rejected a scholarship offer from Washington, scored a career-high 34 points in a 79-67 triumph (box) that sent the Huskies (12-12, 2-9) deeper into the Pac-12 Conference basement with a sixth consecutive loss.
With seven regular-season games left, four on the road, the Huskies are assured of a non-winning conference record, following a remarkable two-year start for the Mike Hopkins regime in Montlake. He can only hope Sunday was the bottom in a season that began 10-2, but little that happened in the Palouse generated even that meager bit of optimism.
“The problem is we’re making the same mistakes,” Hopkins said post-game on KOMO radio. “You gotta grow and get better. We work hard in practice, now you gotta carry it over.”
Looking upon the detritus of another mass-turnover game (16; they lead the Pac-12), in which the Huskies neither defended well nor shot with consistency, it is hard to believe that this is the same team that beat Baylor in November, 67-64, for the Bears’ only loss this season, and gave Gonzaga a stout run in December before losing, 83-76.
Baylor is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Gonzaga is No. 2. The Huskies at the moment would seem to be ranked 300-plus, with the bottom coming up fast.
In fairness, this isn’t the same team from the early season. They are missing talented starting point guard Quade Green, the Kentucky transfer who was running the show with increasing hoops acumen when he abruptly displayed no scholastic acumen. Somehow, he became academically ineligible.
Given the miles of rope generally accorded ballplayers in big-time college hoops, it is hard to imagine how it remains possible to find the tautness to trip oneself academically. But Green did. Nobody is saying anything, but the basketball consequences speak for themselves.
The Huskies have a leader in splendid freshman Isaiah Stewart, but he plays mostly with his back to the basket and needs someone to bring up the ball and give it to him. In the final six games before Green left the team, Stewart was averaging 24.5 points per game. Granted, it was weaker non-conference opposition. Still . . .
Sunday he was 3-for-10 from the field and had 11 points, as the Cougars did what all opponents now do — double-team him the moment he reaches the orange-juice dispenser in the team hotel’s dining room.
“We’ve got some guys that are really talented and aggressive,” said Hopkins. “But sometimes, they’re too aggressive. Sometimes you need singles, and they’re going for grand slams. Sometimes, that’s what youth can do.
“If you can’t make an entry pass, you got problems.”
Since low-post players have become nearly extinct, few guards are trained in the myriad ways to drop dimes on big fellas. Especially at Washington, which managed nine assists on its 25 field goals. The Cougars had 15 on 23.
It’s easy to write off some of the mayhem to youth and first-year dorkiness. But even the holdover starters aren’t producing, like junior guard Nahziah Carter and junior forward Hameir Wright.
Carter scored 18 second-half points, which would be more impressive had he not scored zero points in the first half. Wright was a complete skunk: no points, rebounds or assists in 11 minutes.
“Naz was really aggressive in the second half, but he needed that at the beginning of the game,” Hopkins said. “I asked him after the game what happened. You gotta come out firing.
“Wright was the same thing. Hameir has been playing his best basketball of the year, but tonight he didn’t have it.”
On guy who had it was Elleby. He hit on six of nine threes and all 10 free throws for the highest point total against Washington this season. He also had a game-high 10 rebounds. When he wasn’t hoisting his clean looks from distance, he was shredding UW’s soft zone with 15-footers.
“He had a player of the year-type game — pull-ups, three-pointers, contested shots,” Hopkins said. “We did a really poor job of defending him. We were supposed to make sure he didn’t have a great game, and he had a great game.”
With a brief burst of solid play early in the second half, the Huskies closed the deficit to 46-45 when Elleby went on a personal 7-0 run to keep WSU ahead for good.
Touted but mysterious freshman Jaden McDaniels, who didn’t start but played 35 minutes in his best game in a month, cashed in a rare four-point play to close to 67-63 inside three minutes, but cooled from there. He had 12 of his 16 in the first half, led the Huskies’ turnover festival with five, and barely avoided his conference-high sixth technical foul when a replay review exonerated him from a potential flagrant call on a hard defensive slash with 1:17 left.
It was the sort of immature moment for which McDaniels has become known in his disappointing freshman year, which is expected to be all Washington will get before he does his growing up in the NBA.
Even though he was a contributor Sunday, it wasn’t enough to help the odds for increased exposure in the college postseason. Not only are the Huskies not an NCAA tourney team, the NIT likely will turn up its button nose.
Then again, the Huskies could end up being be the only team to beat No. 1 Baylor, which is the sort of two-headed-calf attraction that might cause someone on a carnival midway to spend $5 for a look.