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November 6, 2014 at 12:59 PM

Five questions for Washington

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar (right) will rely on newcomer Robert Upshaw as he embarks on his 13th season with the Huskies. (Photo credit: Seattle Times - John Lok)

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar (right) will rely on newcomer Robert Upshaw as he embarks on his 13th season with the Huskies. (Photo credit: Seattle Times – John Lok)

Before the Nov. 14 season opener, Washington has one final dress rehearsal 7:30 p.m. Thursday against Division II Saint Martin’s.

There’s a few questions the Huskies will need to answer if they’re going to bounce back after last season’s disappointing 17-15 finish and snap a three-year NCAA tournament drought.

1.) Is the defense really improved? – Coach Lorenzo Romar said the return of 6-10 forward Jernard Jarreau from a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener and the addition of 6-11 Robert Upshaw, a transfer from Fresno State, should improve the defense, especially in the paint and around the rim because both are reputed shot blockers. It would be difficult for the Huskies to be any worse defensively than they were last season. In 2013-14 they allowed opponents to shoot 47.5 percent from the field, which ranked last in the Pac-12. Washington did a good job defending three-pointers – opponents shot 31.8 percent, which was the second fewest in the conference – but the Huskies had great difficulty keeping opposing guards out of the paint and away from the rim. Washington allowed opponents to shoot 53.3 percent on two-point attempts, which was last in the Pac-12. After a 2-3 start last season, Romar was forced to scrap UW’s trademark ball-hawking, pressure defense because opponents averaged 87 points and shot 51 percent from the field, which ranked 346th out of 351 Division I teams. He devised a new defensive scheme in which the Huskies packed the middle, cut off passing lanes and switched defensively on the perimeter. The results were mixed. Washington played well at the start of the Pac-12 season and its 3-1 conference start was largely due to a defense that allowed an average of 61.8 points. Opponents shot 39.2 percent from the field and 12.9 percent beyond the arc. It was an amazing stretch, but it was short lived. In nine of the last 15 games, Washington surrendered at least 75 points and managed just six wins down the stretch.

2.) Can the high-post offense and up-tempo attack co-exist? – It’s the start of Year 3 since Romar implemented the high-post offense and so far the results are unfavorable. In the previous two seasons, Washington averaged 71.5 points per game. During the 10 years when the Huskies ran a motion offense, they averaged 78.9 points. They averaged fewer than 76 points in just two seasons and averaged at least 82 in four seasons. Romar is a staunch defender of his beloved high-post offense that he learned at UCLA when he was a Bruins assistant. He’ll argue the Huskies had an abundance of talented players during the years when they scored in bunches. Still, he’s made it an emphasis during the offseason to stress the importance of picking up the tempo. Of course, the transition offense would be greatly aided by an improved defense that created turnovers. The way Romar explains it, the Huskies will look for early scoring opportunities and if nothing emerges, they’ll run the high-post offense. It’s going to be a delicate balancing act. When to push and be aggressive and when to fall back and run offense? Romar insists Washington has 4-5 players who have improved their perimeter shooting, which is essential in the high-post. However, the inherent problem with the high-post is it promotes jump shots while de-emphasizing attacking the rim. For instance, Washington was an incredible free-throw shooting team last season that shot 75.8 percent at the line. However, the Huskies attempted just 21.7 free throws per game, which ranked 11th in the Pac-12. Take it a step further, Washington averaged 20.5 free throws per game during the past two years with the high post offense. In the previous 10 years, Washington averaged 22.5 free throws.

3.) Who replaces C.J. Wilcox? – Senior wing Mike Anderson will fill the void in the lineup created when Wilcox graduated. Anderson is a quality college player, but expecting him to replace Wilcox, who finished second on Washington’s all-time scoring list, is far fetched. Wilcox was arguably the best shooter who ever wore a Husky uniform. Anderson is productive in different ways. He’s more defensive-minded. He’s a better rebounder, who averaged 5.5 boards last season. He’s solid at the free throw line (.742), but was below average on three-pointers (.289). And that’s potentially a big problem. Washington needs to find someone who can consistently knock down three-point shots. Again, Romar says several players have shot from outside well during the offseason. However, Nigel Williams-Goss (.356) is the only returner who shot better than 29 percent on three-pointers last season. His backcourt mate Andrew Andrews has struggled beyond the arc. During his previous two years, he shot .276 on three-pointers. Keep an eye on sophomore guard Darin Johnson who has the potential to emerge into a perimeter-shooting threat.

4.) And speaking of Williams-Goss, can he carry the load? – Until other players emerge as a threat, opposing teams will make it a priority to shut down Williams-Goss, a 6-3, sophomore point guard who averaged 13.4 points last season. He’s going to get the opposing team’s best defender. They’ll try and restrict his dribble drives and keep him out of the paint where he’s shown an ability to post up and punish smaller guards. Williams-Goss also bears the burden of directing the offense, but he’ll have plenty of help in that department. Washington should be difficult to defend because it has four play makers (Williams-Goss, Andrews, Anderson and Jernard Jarreau) in the starting lineup. That’s a good thing. But over-passing is a bad thing. Versatility is a virtue, but passivity is a problem. This is when it helps to have clear and established roles. It also helps if 1-2 players go into games with a scoring mentality. And it appears as if Williams-Goss will be the go-to player for Washington.

5.) What’s up with Upshaw? – It may take awhile for the Huskies to discover what they have in the big sophomore center with so much potential. Players believe his upside is tremendous. In a poll of returning Huskies, Upshaw was considered UW’s best NBA prospect. And yet he’s not starting Thursday, which may suggest he’s shaking off the rust from a year layoff from basketball due to NCAA transfer rules. Shawn Kemp Jr. will start in the post, but he’s averaged just 1.9 rebounds the past three seasons. He’s also a limited shot blocker and marginal defender. Upshaw is arguably Washington’s most talented player, but he has a history of off-the-court trouble at Fresno State and Washington. It also remains to be seen how his talents blend with teammates. Early reports suggest he’s an incredible rebounder, shot blocker and defender. But can he avoid foul trouble? Is he an offensive threat? And will he do what needs to be done off the court to remain eligible?

Comments | More in Lorenzo Romar, News, Notes | Topics: Nigel Williams-Goss, Robert Upshaw

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