On UW’s Defensive Turnaround

Two weeks into conference play, only the Arizona Wildcats have allowed opponents fewer points per possession than the Washington Huskies. To say this is stunning would probably undersell the magnitude of the turnaround from where we were two weeks ago after non-conference play, when Washington had the second-worst defense of any major-conference team.

Asked about the transformation, UW coach Lorenzo Romar has pointed toward his team finally getting comfortable in the new defensive style (overloading the strong side) the coaching staff installed on the fly in late November after a series of horrendous defensive performances. This is surely at least in part the case, though it’s remarkable how little indication the Huskies gave of this learning curve before starting conference play. (Part of that may be players getting up for Pac-12 foes a tad more than Hartford.)

Additionally, Washington has started switching nearly all screens on the perimeter, a strategy that takes advantage of the team’s size at guard and quickness at forward. The Huskies rarely create a major mismatch by switching, and doing so has allowed them to cut down on the penetration that broke down the defense time and again in November and December.

Beyond all that, Washington has also gotten an enormous dose of good luck in opponent shooting. In last Wednesday’s win, Utah didn’t make a 3-pointer until the final 30 seconds of what was a close game ultimately decided by two points (on, fittingly, a missed 3). Colorado followed that up with another 1-of-12 performance on Sunday. Overall, the four teams the Huskies have faced have shot 6-of-50 (12.0 percent) from beyond the arc.

That, obviously, cannot continue. As Ken Pomeroy’s research has documented, defenses have very little control over the percentage their opponents shoot from 3-point range over entire seasons, let alone four-game stretches.

Credit Romar for understanding that has team has gotten some breaks.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that teams are shooting like 13 percent from the 3 in conference games against us,” Romar told Christian Caple of The News Tribune. “Time will tell if that has anything to do with what we’re doing defensively. We haven’t been in as many rotation situations with this type of defense as we have been in the past. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it or not.”

What defenses can control is how many 3s their opponents shoot, and Washington has done well there by avoiding rotations. They rank second from the bottom in terms of the percentage of shots by opponents from 3-point range in conference play and have allowed opponents the lowest assist rate, a good indicator of staying at home defensively and making teams beat defenders 1-on-1.

Still, the Husky defense is bound to regress as opponents make more of their 3s. If you need proof of that, look no further than last season, when I wrote a post about UW’s 4-0 start to Pac-12 play that was eerily similar to this one in every regard. The undefeated start was built on holding opponents to 18.9 percent 3-point shooting. The rest of the conference season, Washington opponents shot 35.7 percent, slightly better than the conference average (33.8 percent). Predictably, the UW defense regressed, and the Huskies finished Pac-12 play at 9-9.

I also introduced the concept of defensive rating adjusted for 3-point luck in last year’s column. Since Caple put together the season 3-point percentage of every player to attempt a 3-pointer against the Huskies in conference play, we can use that and their attempts to show that they should have made about 17 of their 50 attempts, rather than their actual six. Add 33 points to the Huskies’ first four games and their defensive efficiency drops to 104.5 points per 100 possessions, good for seventh in the Pac-12 — slightly below average. And instead of having outscored opponents by 21 points, UW would be -12 through four games.

That’s still not bad for a team projected to finish last in the conference two weeks ago, but the Huskies probably aren’t the threat their performance over the first four games — especially at the defensive end — would indicate.


Checking in on Husky Hoops

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.

Disastrous Defense

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.

The Husky Hoops Rut

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.

NIT Projections

With the NIT set to tip off shortly, here’s a statistical look at the probability of each school advancing and ultimately winning the title of the nation’s 69th-best team. This is in the same spirit as Ken Pomeroy’s log5 projections, though it does not actually utilize the log5 model. To incorporate home-court advantage, I use Jeff Sagarin’s predictor ratings, with the Pythagorean method giving a probability of each team winning based on rating plus any appropriate home-court advantage.

Here are the figures:

School         Sagarin   2R     QF     FF   Final  Champ
Virginia         84.6   .969   .773   .538   .323   .179
Kentucky         85.0   .782   .642   .437   .288   .164
Baylor           85.0   .922   .764   .405   .266   .152
Iowa             85.0   .898   .606   .290   .179   .102
Southern Miss    81.8   .920   .729   .493   .200   .088
Alabama          81.9   .912   .583   .368   .155   .069
Maryland         82.5   .887   .598   .298   .133   .062
Tennessee        82.2   .831   .371   .183   .077   .035

School         Sagarin   2R     QF     FF   Final  Champ
Stanford         82.7   .808   .357   .148   .067   .032
Denver           82.2   .752   .310   .152   .066   .030
BYU              80.5   .694   .422   .183   .065   .025
Providence       80.1   .828   .280   .078   .036   .013
Massachusetts    79.3   .648   .287   .083   .032   .011
Saint Joseph's   80.4   .749   .182   .058   .025   .010
Washington       79.2   .306   .169   .053   .016   .005
Arizona St.      78.7   .608   .130   .043   .017   .005

School         Sagarin   2R     QF     FF   Final  Champ
Detroit          79.5   .392   .092   .025   .011   .004
Florida St.      77.3   .632   .161   .047   .011   .003
Ohio             79.1   .248   .076   .020   .006   .002
Stony Brook      79.2   .352   .074   .016   .006   .002
Louisiana Tech   77.6   .368   .097   .030   .008   .002
SFA              77.7   .192   .052   .012   .003   .001
St. John's       77.5   .251   .043   .010   .003   .001
Mercer           76.4   .169   .038   .008   .002   .000

School         Sagarin   2R     QF     FF   Final  Champ
Indiana St.      75.7   .102   .033   .004   .001   .000
Charlotte        74.6   .172   .036   .005   .001   .000
Robert Morris    74.2   .218   .042   .004   .001   .000
Long Beach St.   74.1   .078   .015   .002   .000   .000
Niagara          74.1   .113   .015   .002   .000   .000
Charleston       71.6   .080   .012   .001   .000   .000
Northeastern     72.1   .088   .008   .001   .000   .000
Norfolk St.      68.8   .031   .002   .000   .000   .000

A few notable things:

– As compared to the four-letter tournament, seeding is even more important in the NIT because the first three rounds are played at host sites. So Iowa, despite being tied for the best rating, has only the fifth-best chance of reaching the semifinals at Madison Square Garden as a No. 3 seed.

Virginia got the most favorable draw of the top teams. The Cavaliers’ opening-round game against Norfolk State is close to a 1-16 matchup in terms of lopsidedness, and their second-round game should be relatively easy. It’s not until a potential quarterfinal matchup with Iowa that UVa will really be tested.

Baylor also got a tough break. The Bears are the second team with a power rating of 85.0, but happen to be in the same bracket as the third (Kentucky), and would have to play at Rupp Arena if both teams advance to the quarterfinals.

– Sagarin likes UK quite a bit more than Pomeroy, who has the ‘Cats in 41st, and especially BPI (52nd), which attempts to account for Nerlens Noel’s injury. So Kentucky’s chances of winning are surely overstated. In fact, UK isn’t a sure thing to get past tonight’s game at Robert Morris, played on the road because Rupp is busy preparing to host the NCAA tournament.

– The other higher seed we know will be affected by hosting other tournaments (the NCAA women, in this case) is Tennessee. Should the Volunteers beat Mercer, they’ll have to play at the winner of BYU and Washington, which will be a long haul either way. Due to that, and playing in the most wide-open bracket, the Huskies actually got an incredibly favorable draw for a sixth seed. If they can get past Brigham Young on the road, UW has a 1 in 6 shot at reaching Madison Square Garden.

Baylor and Maryland are also hosting the women’s tournament, and it’s unclear whether these teams might have to play on the road in the second and/or third rounds.

– The widest-open bracket is in the Alabama region, where four teams have a 14.8 percent chance or better of getting to the Final Four.

– Lastly, take these projections with a note of caution that the NIT is unlike other tournaments because motivation differs so widely among teams. Every year, we see one of the top seeds sleepwalk at home and stumble to a lesser foe. So I might be understating the variability in the projections.

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.

Senior Day: Don’t Blame Abdul Gaddy for Someone Else’s Mistake

“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” – Cyril Connolly

During Abdul Gaddy‘s first two seasons at the University of Washington, no televised game went by without the broadcast crew making mention of the fact that seemed like it was part of his full name: In 2009, when Gaddy was coming out of Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep, he was rated the No. 2 point guard in the nation behind John Wall.

That note still appears in the media guide, but as it became clear Gaddy was no Wall, those mentions became less frequent. The lofty ranking and the comparison with an NBA-bound star no longer felt like a source of pride but instead a cruel taunt.

There was always a false equivalence at play when Wall was referenced just because the two happened to play the same position. Wall was rated the No. 1 overall prospect in the country and needed only to avoid crashing and burning at Kentucky to be taken with the top pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. Gaddy was actually rated 11th by RSCIHoops.com’s consensus, putting him directly behind washout Tiny Gallon.

Still, Gaddy was a major prospect and the subject of a conference-wide recruiting battle that saw him initially sign with Arizona. I don’t know what the scouts saw when they watched Gaddy play in high school. I saw one of his games, during the annual King Holiday Hoopfest tournament at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, and came away somewhat underwhelmed. Gaddy was the best player on the court, certainly, but not the kind of singular talent the recruiting services suggested. I chalked that up to a mid-level high school game failing to showcase the court vision that was Gaddy’s strength, but when he arrived on campus, Gaddy showed little more in terms of high-level athleticism.

Maybe things would have been different had Gaddy not torn the ACL in his left knee. After all, he was 17 for most of his freshman season, making him the youngest player in the nation and a baby compared to some prep school products. (Teammate Shawn Kemp, Jr., for one, was 20 throughout his entire freshman campaign.) Before the untimely injury, Gaddy’s sophomore campaign was off to a solid start. He was making 55 percent of his twos and 40 percent of his threes, and while those numbers were due to come down against stiffer competition in conference play, Gaddy has never approached those shooting marks again.

For now, let’s stipulate that the scouts were in fact wrong about Gaddy. Here’s the thing: Nobody criticizes them for making a mistake, in part because of the overwhelming recruiting groupthink that makes it difficult if not impossible to single out any individual because of a bad evaluation. (No one had Gaddy ranked higher than 10th or lower than 16th.) More importantly, they’re not the ones out there running the point on a nightly basis. So all the blame has gone to the player. Gaddy has become the symbol for all the frustration Washington fans feel about the past four years, the subject of abuse if not scorn from the people who are supposed to be his fans.

There are few things more important to evaluating players than setting fair expectations. That goes double for amateur athletes, who suffer on-court scrutiny beyond their paygrade. What Gaddy owed the program, and fans, is the same thing any player does — working hard, representing UW well and giving his best effort. Has any of that ever been in question?

Gaddy worked his way back from one of the most devastating injuries an athlete can suffer. To the extent he struggled for reasons within his control, it was precisely because he lost confidence — in no small part because of the relentless criticism. If the goal of fandom is to see your team be as successful as possible, criticizing a player with a fragile psyche is overwhelmingly counter-productive.

Let’s talk about Gaddy’s performance. Here are the career stats for two point guards during the Lorenzo Romar era. Can you tell which of them is Gaddy?

            G    AST    TO   A/TO   PPG   APG   RPG
Player A   121   515   314   1.64   9.2   4.3   2.8
Player B   114   440   242   1.82   7.6   3.9   2.4

Player B is Gaddy and Player A is Will Conroy, one of the most popular Huskies in program history. Conroy is the better player, to be sure — he ultimately reached the NBA because he was a superior scorer and much better defender whose intangibles remain legendary. But it’s important to keep in mind the differences between the two players’ careers. Conroy arrived on campus as a walk-on, an unheralded recruit during a period when the entire Washington basketball program was an afterthought. By the time both he and the team were good enough to generate any expectations, Conroy was surrounded by talent like former Garfield teammate Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Bobby Jones and Tre Simmons. They grew together into a Pac-10 power.

By contrast, Gaddy’s college career has been much more uneven. After his injury, he had to find a way to coexist with the mercurial Tony Wroten as a junior. The departure of Wroten and Terrence Ross for the NBA last summer has forced Gaddy into the uncomfortable position of being the Huskies’ primary creator on offense. It’s also given him no choice but to be a leader, a role which he’s slowly embraced over the second half of this season. In another scenario, the areas in which Gaddy is not Conroy’s equal may never have been nearly so important.

On Saturday, Gaddy will be one of three seniors honored for their service to the University of Washington. Depending on where the Huskies land for postseason play, it might be the last time he takes the court at Hec Ed. I hope we don’t hear anything about John Wall, but instead about how Gaddy ranks third in school history in assists — and still has a chance to surpass Chester Dorsey for second by the end of the season. I hope Gaddy gets an enormous ovation. And I hope he finds some matter of satisfaction at the end of a career that should not be judged by his recruiting ranking.

Slow Starts Plague Huskies

One of my least favorite basketball cliches is that you only need to watch the last few minutes of a game. Even games that are close in nature are often decided long before the finish, and such was the case in Sunday’s Washington Huskies loss at USC. Though the Huskies weren’t completely out of the game until they were unable to get stops down the stretch, they lost the game by falling behind 20-8 before the first TV timeout.

The slow start continued a disturbing trend from this year’s Washington team. In their other two worst Pac-12 losses, home against Utah and at Oregon State, they came out flat. The Utes opened the game with a 12-2 run and the Beavers led 13-3 early en route to both winning their first conference game of the season.

Overall, the Huskies haven’t played poorly early in games. KenPom.com conveniently breaks down each score line into four “quarters” for each 10-minute period. Washington’s best “quarter” is actually the first, during which UW outscores teams by 1.0 point per game. (Their worst “quarter” is the fourth, though that’s not especially telling because of the way teams trying to catch up late in games by intentionally fouling and shooting threes skews the numbers.)

The numbers get a lot more interesting when you account for quality of competition. Using Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System and accounting for home court, I rated how the Huskies could be expected to play against each opponent on their schedule. Divide that by four and you have an expectation for each quarter to compare to actual performance. I then broke down the schedule into three types of games:

Likely wins (Washington favored by at least eight points)- Close games (Projected margins of five points or fewer)
Likely losses (Opponent favored by at least seven points)

Suddenly, a pattern emerges. In likely wins, the Huskies average 2.0 points worse than expected in the first quarter. They’re 1.6 points better than expected in the first quarter in close games, and 2.2 points better in likely losses.

There’s still an effect, though not quite as consistent, in the second quarter, and it entirely disappears in the third quarter before reemerging in the fourth quarter, largely for the reasons described above. (In likely wins, the Huskies were often ahead and playing reserves, for example.)

I’m normally hesitant to discuss quarter-by-quarter trends because I think they mostly represent statistical noise. (These samples, for that matter, are too small for statistical significance.) In this case, though, there’s an explanatory relationship. Lorenzo Romar talked after the Utah and Oregon State games about his team looking at the opposition’s record. USC isn’t as obviously a lesser foe — the Trojans now have a better conference record than UW — but that game still generated less excitement than the previous four games against the top four teams in the conference.

Washington wouldn’t necessarily have won any of those games without the poor start — USC and Utah had narrow edges over the final 30 minutes — but the Huskies certainly would have helped their chances of avoiding costly losses. Now that the team has, in Romar’s words, “zero margin for error,” motivation should not be an issue. It’s hard to imagine a team worse than .500 in conference play looking past anyone.

Tonight’s game against rival Oregon should generate plenty of excitement. We’ll know on Saturday when the Beavers visit Hec Ed whether the Huskies have been able to lick their problem with slow starts.