Ask historically great programs like Texas football or UCLA basketball; losing has a way of compounding itself in college sports. With constant, acute competition for recruits, it can be difficult to reverse the narrative once you start slipping. Why would that five-star quarterback want to play for you just because you used to be worth a damn? But constant roster regeneration also means that you always have a chance to roar to prominence with one good class. Washington’s turnaround season is a prime example of that.
The Huskies are 13-5 overall and 5-1 in Pac-12 play, good enough for first in the league. Just about everyone predicted they’d finish at the bottom of the meh Pac-12, but they’ve swept both Los Angeles teams and have a résumé-leading win over upset artists Texas. Even if they don’t hold onto the Pac-12 lead (they won’t), they’re a decent bet to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons, which is rather remarkable given the shit sandwich of a season they endured last year.
Of the Huskies’ seven top scorers from last season, three transferred, two graduated, and one was kicked off the team. They started the season 11-0 and were ranked 13th, before blowing themselves up with their own dynamite and finishing only a game above .500. Center Robert Upshaw had the wingspan of an Andean Condor, but he got booted from the team halfway through the year. Then, the Huskies could only watch as their future transferred across the state to Gonzaga, when second-team All-Pac-12 guard Nigel Williams-Goss left for Spokane. All that was left of an admittedly flawed core to begin with was Andrew Andrews.
Andrews has been one of the very best scorers in college basketball this season. He has a mind-boggling free throw rate of .721—the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt—which James Harden could only dream of, and leads the Pac-12 in scoring by almost five points per game. In fact, Washington is eighth in the nation in points per game, even though they can’t shoot worth a damn.
Andrews somehow shoots better from three than from two, and his team is 285th in the country in two-point percentage. Because of their complete inability to hit jumpers, they play like an analytics nerd’s wet dream: all dunks and threes, at a furious pace. It doesn’t exactly result in efficient basketball, but the pieces are there. Watch the highlights from their 2OT win over UCLA. Down the stretch, they spaced it out, drove at the Bruins and got nothing but dunks and bombs.
You’ll notice, here, that Andrews has a flock of eager dunkers surrounding him. They’re all new to the team. Only four Huskies returned from last season, but Lorenzo Romar’s crop of freshman have transformed his team into a springy and dangerous opponent. Before the season, Romar told SI exactly how his team would play:
“Make no mistake about it, we are going run, play an up-tempo style. Our length and athleticism will be a strength (as will) the fact that we have multiple players that can make plays.”
The best of Washington’s nine newcomers has been combo guard Dejounte Murray. He’s athletic, rangy, and a perfect pairing next to Andrews. When Washington came back from 22 down against USC, it was because Murray ripped them for 29. His ability to get an easy shot while driving into a thicket of defenders is impressive, but watch how he recovers after getting swatted: he baits two defenders into going for another block, and gets himself an easy layup.
Washington also has a hyperkinetic point guard (David Crisp), a shotblocking menace with some real touch (Malik Dime), and a pair of inside-out forwards (Marquese Chriss and Matisse Thyublle) to round out the newcomers. Just about every game—and this is also a testament to the inconsistency of freshman—somebody different steps up and plays second fiddle to Andrews. Dime, a community college transfer originally from Senegal, has been particularly impressive. He’s helped the Huskies block more shots than any other team in the country, and he’s only been hooping for five years.
Because Washington is young, they’ll fuck around and lose to UCSB, or give up almost 100 at home to a Horizon League school just as readily as they’ll beat a good Pac-12 team. Relying on freshmen is always a risky proposition, even a crop as talented as this, so results will be characteristically uneven for Washington. But the Huskies are the type of unpredictable team that can take anyone, so they’re perfect for March.
Photo via AP