The UW men’s basketball team kicks off the Pac-12 season tonight in Tempe against Arizona State, and based on the team’s performance in non-conference play, it could be a long season ahead.
While the Huskies finished 8-5 in November and December and won nearly all of the games they should have — a home loss to UC Irvine being the exception — they struggled so much to beat lesser foes and were so outmatched against quality ones that they have dropped in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings from No. 49 entering the season to No. 150 today — last in the Pac-12. When Pomeroy recently simulated the conference schedule a thousand times, Washington was the only Pac-12 team never to win the title.
The Huskies have actually met expectations on offense, where their exceptionally accurate free throw shooting (77.4 percent, good for ninth in the country) and relatively low turnover rate (ranked 48th, an improvement from 164th last season) have led them to the NCAA’s 55th-best offense on a per-possession basis, adjusted for quality of opposition. That’s better than Washington managed two years ago with future first-round picks Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten (62nd).
Unfortunately, any offensive success has more than been offset by the Huskies’ inability to stop anybody. By the same measure of points allowed per possession, adjusted for opposition, the Huskies rank 286th in the nation, far and away their worst performance under Lorenzo Romar. Previously, Romar’s worst defense on Montlake was the 2003-04 NCAA tournament team, which finished No. 154. Only one power-conference team has been worse on defense than Washington — Boston College (No. 300), which handed the Huskies an 89-78 loss at Madison Square Garden in a November matchup that featured few stops by either side.
Surprisingly, Washington’s 3-point defense has actually been decent. The Huskies are allowing fewer attempts beyond the arc than average, the factor over which defenses have the most control, and opponents are shooting a below-average 34.8 percent from downtown. But as soon as they step inside the arc, other teams have converted a ghastly 54.8 percent of their 2-point attempts, putting Washington 320th of the 351 Division I teams.
Digging deeper, the problem is at the rim, where the Huskies are both allowing too many attempts (37.3 percent of all shots by opponents have come there, per Hoop-Math.com) and giving up makes more than 70 percent of the time. Washington’s inability to keep opponents out of the paint has been exacerbated by a lack of rim protection, leaving the Huskies vulnerable inside.
It’s hardly surprising that Washington would struggle to defend the rim after Jernard Jarreau, the team’s best shot blocker, was lost to a ruptured ACL in the season opener. But the magnitude of the problem has been inexcusable. The Huskies are so bad defensively that they may be better off giving up on man-to-man defense and playing strictly zone.
After getting torched by Indiana and BC in New York, the UW coaching staff made defensive adjustments with the idea of overloading the strong side of the floor and having more players in position to help. This scheme has avoided those kind of nightmare performances, and in fact the Huskies have held opponents below their season-long adjusted offensive rating four times in the last six games. But Washington has still been below average defensively in that span because of poor efforts against UConn and Hartford.
Reasons for Optimism?
Besides Jarreau, the Huskies played most of their non-conference schedule without forward Desmond Simmons, who returned for the final three games after knee surgery. After shaking off the rust, Simmons scored 11 points in 14 minutes against Hartford, and while he’s not a rim protector, his size and rebounding will help on defense.
Most importantly, a healthy Simmons gives Romar enough depth up front to shorten his rotation. Backup center Gilles Dierickx, thrust into the rotation by the injuries, proved overmatched in his limited playing time. According to the plus-minus data tracked by StatSheet.com, Washington has been outscored by 41 points in Dierickx’s 53 minutes of action. (Not counting the UConn game, for which plus-minus is not available.) The Huskies have also been outscored with Shawn Kemp, Jr. (-10) and Darin Johnson (-5) on the floor, and all three players have seen their minutes cut recently.
The biggest plus-minus standout in non-conference play was forward Mike Anderson, who stepped into Jarreau’s spot in the starting lineup. While Anderson is undersized for the frontcourt at 6-6, his rebounding prowess has kept the Huskies effective on the glass, the one strength of their defense. And his outside shooting has spaced the floor well on offense. Washington has outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 40 minutes with Anderson on the floor, so Romar will want to continue getting Anderson minutes at both forward positions even as Simmons plays more.
Another player to watch is freshman point guard Jahmel Taylor, who has gone from redshirt candidate to part of the rotation. In a tiny sample, the Huskies have outscored opponents by 12.6 points per 40 minutes with Taylor on the floor. His pressure on the ball has helped Washington’s perimeter defense.
The problem is, even if the Huskies can put together a better rotation for conference play, they’ll have to improve to match the rest of the Pac-12, which now looks deeper than expected this season. Utah went 11-1, and though that’s partially a product of a weak non-conference slate, the Utes looked dangerous in beating BYU at home and losing narrowly at Boise State. USC got impressive non-conference wins at Dayton and against Xavier on a neutral court.
The improvement by those two schools has left the Pac-12 with three teams outside the Pomeroy top 100 — Oregon State (getting star forward Eric Moreland back from suspension for the conference schedule), Washington State and UW. So at the moment, it looks like the Evergreen State’s two teams could be battling each other to avoid the Pac-12 cellar.