Befitting its location mere blocks from Broadway, Madison Squre Garden is designed like a stage, with the darkness of the crowd sharply contrasted against the well-lit court. The bright spotlight can provide an opportunity for players and teams to step up and shine, but the harsh glare also makes it impossible to hide flaws. Such was the case for the Washington Huskies during their two-game visit to the Garden last week. After getting blown out by Indiana in the opener, they couldn’t get enough stops to hang with a Boston College team picked 8th in the ACC.
The Huskies flew home Saturday ranked 142nd in the nation by KenPom.com, their lowest mark in the three-plus seasons the Pomeroy ratings have been tracked game-by-game and 11th in the Pac-12 conference right now. While Lorenzo Romar‘s teams have a history of overcoming slow starts, and the expected return of Desmond Simmons makes it nearly certain this year’s group will be better in a month or two, Washington has been so bad thus far that better still might mean finishing among the Pac-12 teams either rebuilding (USC, Utah) or historically near the bottom of the conference (Oregon State, Washington State).
Though I picked them eighth in the Pac-12, I had higher hopes for the Huskies. With some luck, I thought this could be an NCAA tournament team, a notion that now seems preposterous. Part of the issue, without question, is the injuries that have struck the UW frontline. The size and athleticism of Jernard Jarreau, out for the season after rupturing his ACL just minutes into the opener, was badly missed against Indiana’s talented frontcourt. And Simmons, out until December after arthroscopic knee surgery, would have been invaluable on the glass and given the Huskies a better matchup for today’s inside-out power forwards.
Even at full strength, however, it appears Washington would have been far from the tournament conversation. And with star guard C.J. Wilcox and post scorer Perris Blackwell graduating after this season, it’s getting more difficult to see a path back to contention in the Pac-12. The conference, so far down when the Huskies won it during the regular season two years ago, has gotten better while UW has stood still at best and regressed at worst.
The short-term concern is whether Washington can adapt to the new “freedom of movement” rules enforcement instituted by the NCAA this season. Romar has always favored an aggressive perimeter defense, and part of my optimism over the summer was rooted in the belief that the Huskies could get back to that style after their lack of depth on the perimeter forced them to play more conservatively the last two years.
UW has changed its style in response, and is putting opponents on the free throw line relatively less frequently than two seasons ago, let alone during the highpoints of the Romar era. But the ferocity with which the Huskies traditionally defended has been lost in the process. They’re forcing even fewer turnovers than last season, which had been their low-water mark under Romar, while allowing perimeter players to blow by them off the dribble. That’s putting foul-prone Shawn Kemp Jr. on the bench early and forcing Washington to play smallball to try to survive, which has gotten them destroyed on the glass and in the paint.
The more pressing question for me is whether Romar has lost his way in terms of recruiting. The Huskies built their success over the last decade on a simple formula: keep talented local players at home and surround them with underrated, hard-working recruits who will develop on Montlake. Despite a strong 2013 recruiting class headlined by top point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, neither pillar seems to be working right now.
In the past, homegrown talent like Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas provided UW’s foundation. To the extent the Seattle area has produced those kinds of players over the last few years, aside from Tony Wroten they’ve ended up elsewhere. Little-used backup guard Hikeem Stewart is the only Husky on scholarship from the Puget Sound area, and while Timberline’s Donaven Dorsey will join him next season, he belongs more in the category of overachiever than NBA-bound star.
The dropoff in the latter category is more troubling. Wilcox, a three-star recruit who initially redshirted before developing into an NBA prospect, is precisely the kind of player Washington once routinely found. Romar has relied on players like Justin Holiday and Bobby Jones who kept improving throughout their four years on campus.
The aggressive Andrew Andrews and scrappy Mike Anderson may prove they belong in that category, and Jarreau could have joined them had he stayed healthy, but too many of their peers lack the fiery attitude that distinguished Holiday and Jones. The issues with transition defense and slow starts that have plagued the Huskies the last couple of seasons were never problematic before, and the attacking style that made UW so fun to play has gone missing and taken the intimidating atmosphere of a sold-out Hec Edmundson Pavilion with it. Within the last three years, the Huskies have lost more than twice as many home non-conference games (five) than they did in the previous eight combined (two).
Romar is not ignorant of these issues. He’s made wholesale changes to the coaching staff the last two summers to try to bring new spark to the program, but so far they have resulted in nothing but more of the same. Washington has gone off track, and I’m increasingly concerned they won’t be able to find their way back any time soon.