Did the Huskies Underachieve?

Last night’s overtime loss to Oregon essentially put a bow on the Washington Huskies’ 2012-13 season. The Huskies still have a pretty good shot at an NIT berth, but are unlikely to make the kind of run they did to get to Madison Square Garden last year. They simply aren’t that good, though they can compete with basically anyone outside the country’s elite teams.

Clearly, Washington fans will look back on this season as a disappointment. The Huskies’ 9-9 record in conference play was their worst mark since 2007-08 and out of line for a program that has come to count on trips to the four-letter tournament in March. Whether this year’s UW team came up short depends on how expectations are framed. In the larger scheme of things, these Huskies underachieved. But in the context of a team that lost two stars to the NBA, I don’t think that’s nearly so clear.

Revisiting Preseason Expectations

Join me in traveling all the way back to October. What were the best guesses for what this Washington team might accomplish?

In College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, I picked the Huskies seventh in the Pac-12 with a prediction of 9-9 in conference play. My conclusion? “The [new] coaches have their work cut out for them to help the Huskies overcome the talent drain and a short rotation. Consider this a rebuilding year for Washington, the most consistent team in the Pac-12 over the last decade.”

This year’s edition of College Basketball Prospectus also featured Dan Hanner’s comprehensive projection system. On the eve of the season, after factoring in late-breaking developments, Hanner’s system projected an 8-10 conference record for the Huskies, putting them seventh in the Pac-12.

I don’t have Ken Pomeroy‘s record projections archived, but I was able to go through his preseason ratings for each team (derived using a simpler method than Hanner’s). Pomeroy rated Washington 70th in the country and seventh in the Pac-12.

The most optimistic assessment came from the Pac-12 media poll, which pegged the Huskies for fifth place.

Taken together, these projections and predictions put UW in a band somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12 with a conference record near .500. And that’s exactly where the Huskies finished. The team’s inability to overcome injuries to beat lesser foes in non-conference play meant Washington went to Las Vegas with no real path to the NCAA tournament save winning the auto-bid, but beyond that the Huskies were who we thought they were.

Too Talented to Fail?

What about Washington’s talent? During the first two days of the Pac-12 tourney, Bill Walton has made a couple of references to the Huskies being as talented as Arizona and UCLA. I love Walton’s work, but this is crazy. Let’s take a look at the top-100 (and top-10, top-25 and top-50) recruits on each Pac-12 roster, per StatSheet.com:

School      10  25  50  100
---------------------------
Arizona      1   4   4   6
UCLA         2   3   3   5
Stanford     0   0   1   4
UW           0   1   1   2
USC          0   0   1   2
Colorado     0   0   1   2
Cal          0   0   0   2
Oregon       0   0   1   2
ASU          0   0   1   1
OSU          0   0   0   1
Utah         0   0   0   1
WSU          0   0   0   0

As unpredictable as recruiting can be at the individual level, on the team level it’s a pretty good measure of pure ability. Other than Oregon, which benefited from the arrival of non-recruit Arsalan Kazemi, this matches up closely with performance in Pac-12 play, if not necessarily the actual standings.

Technically, the Huskies were the only team outside the Arizona-UCLA axis with a top-25 recruit on the roster. Of course, as discussed last week, Abdul Gaddy’s rating is noteworthy for being misleading. Besides Gaddy, UW has one other consensus top-100 recruit on the roster (Scott Suggs, ranked 69th in 2008). That’s fewer top-100 recruits than Stanford and as many as most of the other mid-tier conference schools.

In terms of sheer talent, this Washington roster just doesn’t match up with its predecessors or the conference’s elite team. To the extent UW does have NBA potential on the roster (most notably C.J. Wilcox), it’s more a testament to the coaching staff’s eye for underrated talent than sheer recruiting prowess.

The Real Problem

Ideally, this season should have been the start of a two-year rebuilding process for the Huskies after a four-year run at the top of the conference. Next year’s recruiting class, with top-100 guard Nigel Williams-Goss, will help replenish the team’s talent. But unless Washington can land elite prospect Aaron Gordon, there’s unlikely to be so much quality on the roster to overcome the team’s youth.

A two-year down cycle would be about right for the Huskies. It’s similar, if softer, to the two seasons Washington spent outside the tournament in 2006-07 before rebounding with the arrival of Isaiah Thomas. Unfortunately, last year’s team did underachieve by missing the NCAA tournament despite winning the Pac-12, setting up Husky fans to go into this season already frustrated and putting more pressure on next year’s squad to get back to the tournament.

Whether disappointing or not, this season was undeniably frustrating. I think that’s the nature of a .500 team. Fans of Arizona State, Stanford and USC probably feel the same way. There are going to be good stretches and bad stretches, and it’s easy as a fan — or an analyst — to assume that the good stretches are legitimate and the bad stretches are the outlier. Really, both types of performance are equally valid. That goes double in this year’s Pac-12, where the thin margins between the conference’s best and worst teams meant many games — and basically every one so far during the Pac-12 Tournament — have been decided by the fickle vagaries of the last five minutes. Win a couple of those, as UW did at the start of the conference season, and you feel unbeable. Lose a couple and the sky starts falling.

Washington won one close game in Vegas and lost another, and that’s ultimately about what should have happened.

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One thought on “Did the Huskies Underachieve?

  1. For me personally, I was underwhelmed with the season because of the number of upperclassmen that we had compared to previous years and the hope that this would improve our defense. Maybe I was wrong, but I had felt that Romar and his staff did an above average job of developing players into being well-rounded basketball players by their senior years (MBA, Holiday, Dentmon all come to mind as average to above-average talent players that had solid senior seasons and improved in many facets besides just scoring during their career). I figured that the loss of Ross and Wroten was going to hurt our offense, but I wasn’t expecting the defense to be worse than last year. Pomeroy has our adjusted D at 96.5, a point worse than last year, and it hasn’t been that high since the 2006-2007 season when we had all those freshmen playing significant minutes.

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