Let’s Talk About the UW Women

There are many annoying things about the men’s basketball schedule in the Pac-12 Network era, but one of the nice side benefits — on top of the additional national exposure — is that the new schedule has made it easier to follow women’s basketball during conference play, with fewer overlapping games.

I was happy to get out to Hec Ed for both games last weekend as the Washington women hosted the L.A. schools. Both games went down to the closing seconds, with UW missing a tying three inside the final minute against No. 17 UCLA but holding USC scoreless over the last three minutes to win on Sunday.

Sunday’s win assured the Huskies will finish .500 or better in Pac-12 play for the first time since letting long-time coach June Daugherty go six years ago. After a four-year drought with Daugherty’s replacement, Tia Jackson, Washington is headed in the right direction under Kevin McGuff, who has the team playing an exciting brand of basketball.

To Jackson’s credit, she left McGuff with a talented recruiting class. Dynamic guard Jazmine Davis was last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Talia Walton has an excellent shot at making it two in a row for UW (she’s earned Freshman of the Week honors three of the last six weeks) after taking a medical redshirt because of knee surgery. Add in Aminah Williams and McGuff inherited 3/5 of a starting lineup, signed by Jackson.

Still, it looked like it would take time for McGuff to turn the program around because of injuries. The Huskies lost senior star Kristi Kingma to a torn ACL before McGuff’s first season, and highly touted freshman post Katie Collier — the first McDonald’s All-American in program history — suffered a torn ACL last summer. Other injuries have left McGuff with what is effectively a six-player rotation with no one taller than 6-2.

As Jerry Brewer detailed in the Seattle Times last week, McGuff and his coaching staff have made no excuses and instead adapted to the talent on hand, playing a style nearly opposite from last season’s. They’ve gone small, used heavy dollops of zone defense and picked opponents apart with their shooting.

The result is a team that is fascinating statistically. UW essentially cedes the rebounding battle every night — the Huskies’ rebound rate is worst among major-conference teams in the nation. But their three-guard lineup takes care of the basketball (their turnover rate is third-lowest in the nation), almost never puts opponents on the line (lowest free throw rate in the Pac-12, which is also whistle-happy on the women’s side) and averages nearly three more three-pointers per game than the opposition.

The formula wouldn’t work without versatile talent. The 6-2 Walton, asked to defend bigger opponents on a nightly basis, is something of a neo-Sam Perkins. She blocks shots like a center (her block rate is best in the Pac-12) but is far more comfortable outside the three-point line on offense and averages two triples a game. Williams, naturally a small forward at 6-0, has kept UW from getting beaten even worse on the glass. She’s averaging 10.9 rebounds per game and is the only starter shooting better than 40 percent on two-point attempts.

In Kingma, who has worked her way back after missing last season, and Mercedes Wetmore the Huskies have two veteran shooters and ballhandlers to complement Davis, the engine that makes the offense go. The 5-7 sophomore, averaging 19.9 points per game, has a chance to join Guiliana Mendiola and Jamie Redd as the lone players in school history to average 20 points.

The combination might not be enough for an NCAA tournament berth because the Pac-12 isn’t especially strong. Washington ranks just 63rd in RPI and is lacking in marquee wins. Still, it’s not bad for what looked like a rebuilding season.

If you haven’t seen the UW women in person this season, you’ve got several great opportunities. During the last weekend of February, Stanford and Cal — both ranked in the top 10 — will come to town for the marquee games of the season. Both schools are making their first visit to Seattle since 2011 because of the Pac-12’s imbalanced schedule.

The weekend after that, the Pac-12 Tournament will be played at KeyArena for the first time. If the Huskies can finish in one of the top five spots and beat Colorado at a not-so-neutral site, it would set up a fun semifinal against the Cardinal and legendary coach Tara VanDerveer that shouldn’t be missed.