The Conference of Champions is being slept on a little less in 2012-13 than it was last season.
Led by flashy recruiting classes the name-brand schools of Arizona and UCLA are once again touted as the class of the Pac-12. Ben Howland and Sean Miller can coach a little too. A little further north in the Bay Area is Mike Montgomery’s Golden Bears who expect to build on last year’s at-large bid. Meanwhile in Palo Alto expectations loom large for Johnny Dawkins in year No. 5, and rightfully so. In fact, the Cardinal believe a conference championship is in order. Not many will sleep on reigning conference tournament champions Colorado, either, who were tough to beat in Boulder last season. All in all, the conference is expected to rebound and send three to five teams to the dance, a huge upgrade over having two double-digit seeds last season.
Over in the Northwest corner, where the reigning regular season champions of the Conference of Champions call home, there doesn’t seem to be much of a spotlight. Even though the dean of Pac-12 coaches, Lorenzo Romar, and his Washington Huskies have claimed an outright conference title or a tournament conference championship each of the last four seasons.
Even so, success on the hardwood isn’t expected to come from Montlake this season.
It might be because Washington lacks the ‘elite’ players other teams in the conference have. It might be because Washington lacks experience of substance, with only two players returning who could be considered real ‘starters’ last season. It might be because Washington was chronically under-achieving last season.
Or, it may be the two immensely talented first-round picks Washington lost.
Those concerns are all completely valid. The level of unknown with this team is pretty high, but so is the level of potential.
Would the perception of this year’s team be different had the team done what it took to go dancing last season? Probably so. Inexplicable back-to-back losses to UCLA and Oregon State to end the season brought Washington from clearly in the field of 68 to long shots to even sniff a play-in game.
So to the NIT the Huskies went, to become forgotten, disrespected and written off.
Redemption is spelled out fairly simply for the Huskies – Make the NCAA tournament. Come together as a team and use the experience and talent that very much exists within this program to play to the levels this collection of players is capable of playing.
Last year’s team did not do that, at the fault of more than just the two you-know-who players. The variable Washington needed to tilt positively was obviously maturity, leadership and experience. Washington provided the answer to that pretty earlier in the season last year when the team proved to be completely incapable of responding to adversity.
When it rained it poured, last season. Washington was often incapable of coming back from big early deficits, aside from a couple of scenarios in which Terrence Ross took over a game near the end (or the Washington State clinic on ‘how not to make a Free Throw’ in Pullman). Washington often showed a lackadaisical attitude when holding second half leads and a bad ability to close out games, the worst example of which was at UCLA. Those problems scream lack of on-court leadership.
It’s possible for Washington this season to improve its ability to respond to those adversities, and it’s possible for Washington to accomplish it without the first round picks it lost.
“First round picks” lead people to believe that in order for Washington to replace, or even improve upon, that type of production is with other first round type talents. That is not the case.
Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross were drafted in the first round based on raw talent and potential. Both have significant improvements to make if they are to live up to the billings their draft positions warrant.
Don’t take that the wrong way. Washington would unquestionably be a better program right now with both of those players, because they would continue to get better. The point being made here is that their absence should not prevent Washington from making the improvements this year in the areas that need it the most.
Every player on the team that will hit the floor and see minutes has been in the program for at least a year. Washington will have three seniors in the starting line-up, one a fifth-year player. Every ‘freshman’ will have a redshirt under their belt.
With every player who will be in the rotation being a returning player the ultimate hope would be the players recognize roles and recognize who Romar has challenged to be the leaders.
At least I would hope.
Now, let’s look at the line-up, the bench, and what could, should, might, will have to improve for Washington to be the legitimate NCAA tournament contender they are.
PG – Abdul Gaddy – Sr.
SG – Scott Suggs – RS Sr.
3-G – CJ Wilcox – RS. Jr.
PF – Desmond Simmons – RS So.
C – Aziz N’Diaye – Sr.
G – Andrew Andrews RS Fr
F – Jernard Jerreau – RS Fr.
G- Hikeem Stewart – So.
F – Shawn Kemp – So.
F – Martin Breunig – So.
There are 19 years of combined experience at the University of Washington in the starting line-up (N’Diaye spent his freshman year at a JC). The bench is a bit inexperienced, which is a concern, but Kemp and Breunig were able to cut their teethe last season. Jerrau and Andrews are going to see significant minutes. Both are incredibly athletic and will be able to run the floor, coming off the bench providing a change of pace from Dezzy, Aziz and Gaddy. What’s optimistic, however, is that Washington will play ZERO true freshman, Washington will play ZERO players who were not here last season. In college basketball that absolutely counts for something.
But Sean, where is the TALENT!? WE LOST WROTEN AND ROSS!!… you may be asking yourself.
Oh, don’t you worry, the talent is there. Washington lost three starters, but returns three seniors and a fourth-year junior who will start. The fifth starter is a third-year sophomore. None of those players are players who Washington is settling for, this isn’t a year in which Venoy Overton, Ryan Appleby and Tim Morris (remember him?) are starting because there is nobody else of worth. Suggs redshirted specifically to start this season. Gaddy could have easily been pushed aside by Andrews this season if he simply wasn’t that good. CJ Wilcox is a future NBA-er, without question.
This is a group of kids I firmly believe have the talent to take Washington to the NCAA tournament. This is still a roster which features anywhere from two to four kids who will get looks from the NBA. There have been successful college basketball teams with less potential pros. It all comes down to the improvements that those players all make. Lorenzo Romar has proven to be very good at taking good, raw, young talent and molding them in to well-rounded, sound players later in their careers. Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon, Quincy Pondexter, Justin Holiday, Brandon Roy, Bobby Jones to name a few.
Romar is responsible for putting players in the right positions, environments, and roles to succeed – physically and mentally. I believe Lorenzo Romar has gone a long way towards doing this and I believe that the experience of the team, the fact the team will rely on no true freshman, and the fact Romar has proven time and time again he has the ability to develop talented players as their careers progress will be why this team will IMPROVE on last season.
Yes, this season will be hardly different from most of Romar’s seasons in which there are a lot of ifs. But we can’t act as if there weren’t seasons in which those ‘ifs’ came true. Such as – Brandon Roy overcoming injury his senior season to become an All-American. Isaiah Thomas becoming the freshman phenom we all hoped, coupled with Dentmon becoming a prolific scorer when he became an off-ball player. Quincy Pondexter mentally putting it together and becoming a dominant small-forward. Isaiah Thomas becoming a leader in every sense of the term his junior season.
It goes both ways too. Last season being a season in which the ‘if’ of finding a leader was a hopeless fail. Or we can go back to 2006-07 when the ‘if’ of the highly touted freshman class Romar put together performing turned out to fall apart – three of the four freshman left the program by the next season.
Still, this team deserves the benefit of the doubt. Welcome back to Romarville, it’s been far too long since March.
Here, I’ll break down each key player to the turn-around this year and what has to happen for the team to improve in the areas it needs to – Half court offense and leadership ability. I go on forever, so read at your own risk.
A huge noticeable difference in looking at this roster and this rotation is how little ambiguity there is between roles. Each player seems to have been fit in to a role they’ll need to improve on as the season goes along.
Gaddy has the physical tools to be the holding, offense starting, point-guard this offense needs. The new high post philosophy is suited to his abilities and his game. Gaddy isn’t an overly explosive or athletic player, but he’s mentally and skillfully sound. His assist-to-turnover ratio last season as as good as it’s ever been. What has to happen is for Gaddy to gain confidence in his knee, his ACL tear is nearly two years behind him now. It was too evident how passive and reluctant he was to drive to the basket, which made him a predictable and easily guard-able player. This stalled the half-court offense far too much on nights Wroten couldn’t consistently cut to the basket. If Gaddy trusts his physicality he will make things happen from the point guard position.
Scott Suggs is an all around scorer who hasn’t gotten his opportunity at Washington because he’s been position blocked or hurt. He redshirted last season after an injury that would’ve held him out until January as insurance for Wroten and Ross leaving, and, well, here we are. Suggs shows solid ability to drive to the basket and is one of the best shooters on the team. Suggs will go a long way towards replacement the lost production from Ross, at least scoring.
Both of those players will go a long way towards being outspoken leaders of the team and setting the tone for responding to adversity. Both have gone through personal adversity, both have been in the program for at least four years, Suggs has seen all four conference championships.
After those two is where it gets fun.
CJ Wilcox is the best player on the team – Period. He is a prolific shooter, has well above average athleticism, great length at 6-5 and has shown growth defensively. Wilcox is a better all-around scorer than he is given credit for and the offense will be set up to allow him to move around without the ball in his hand. Where Wilcox has to grow is showing the ability to use his size around the basket and making defenses play him honest by driving to the basket.
Basically, CJ Wilcox needs to develop in to an upper-middle-class man’s Ray Allen. Hefty comparison, I know, but CJ Wilcox is that good. His ceiling is mid to late first round pick.
- As we finish the backcourt starters I also want to note the free throw shooting should be incredibly better from this group of guards. Nothing against Wroten, but these three are the most consistent on the team from the charity stripe.
Aziz N’Diaye improved significantly posting up and showing an offensive game. Still, he’s incredibly raw. He’s been working on being mentally more sound around the basket, being more physical in the rebound game and developing better post moves. The change in Washington’s offense to the high-post is to become much more consistent in the half -court game, with Aziz being one of the most important parts. His ability to score down low will keep defenses honest off of Suggs and Wilcox. Aziz has a lot to prove – I’d be hard-pressed to count the amount of incredible Wroten passes Aziz dropped because he wasn’t positioned correctly or wasn’t aware of what was going around him. Still, Aziz progressed significantly in developing physicality last season, and is one of the most athletic big men Washington has ever had. You can’t teach being 7-feet, which is why Aziz might have an NBA eye on him or two if his Senior season goes right.
Desmond Simmons is an athletic freak, plain and simple. He’s 6-7, can run the court and flashes the potential of being able to score from most areas on the court. He came on later in the year as a good rebounder and showed some ability from under the bucket. He’s still a very raw talent and it was frustrating to see him settle for so many mid-range jumpers, although his ability with the dribble could use a little work as well. Desmond Simmons is going to do a lot of things for this team. There will be times this season where he will be frustrating and disappear, but there will be times where he’s going to make you take a step back and go….’Wow.’ The high-post offense is going to help Simmons get more easy looks at the basket and is suited for him to move without the ball and use his athleticism to get good looks at the basket. On top of that, he’s going to be a hustle guy behind the scenes doing the dirty work that doesn’t appear on in the box score.
The two kids off the bench that will have to show ability right away are Andrew Andrews and Jernard Jerreau. There’s no guarantee Aziz will get over his foul trouble issues, and Jerreau will be one of the first to come on to spell him and Simmons. He’s a versatile player away from the bucket with a decent mid-range game. How physical he is when he gets around the bucket is the question – He redshirted for a reason in a season that Washington was in need of size.
Andrews will be the first point guard off the bench which will allow Gaddy to also move over to an off-ball position at times if both are on the court at the same time. He’s shown good coast to coast ability in transition but his ability to run the halfcourt offense will determine a lot of this teams’ success. Gaddy can’t go 40-minutes a game and Andrews is the only other player on the team in which the team should feel confortable running the point position. Suggs can do it a little if needed, though.
Wild cards are Breunig and Kemp, wild cards that have to show up and make a positive impact. Depth, or lack thereof, could turn out to be a big detriment to the Huskies if these two players don’t show significant progress from their freshman seasons. Breunig played in most of Washington’s games, but didn’t see too many minutes and was a non-factor most of the time. He was easily muscled away from the basket and didn’t show much of the versatility from the wing that’s been touted. He’s athletic and talented and should continue to progress, but we’ll need to see a lot of it right away.
Kemp just has to be able to be a guy who can come off the bench, play good defense under the basket and rebound well. Not much else. He didn’t do either very well last season, so that’s a concern.
That’s all I have for now. Go Dawgs!