There’s good news as the University of Washington Huskies prepare to take on crosstown rival Seattle University in their annual matchup tonight as the visitors at KeyArena. The game against Seattle U marks the first of four games against sub-200 competition that is far and away the easiest stretch of the Huskies’ schedule. Per Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, all four teams rate substantially worse than the weakest foe Washington has played to date (No. 158 Nevada).
The bad news is the damage has already been done. Saturday’s loss to the Wolfpack dropped the Huskies to 4-4, which already ties the most non-conference losses in the months of November and December in Lorenzo Romar‘s decade at his alma mater–with a trip to Connecticut still looming before the start of Pac-12 play. Three of those four defeats have come at home, where Washington was previously virtually unbeatable against non-BCS foes. Between Romar’s first rebuilding season and last year’s upset by tournament-bound South Dakota State, the Huskies suffered just one home loss to a team outside the major conferences: Gonzaga, in 2004, when the Zags were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and hardly comparable.
The situation isn’t quite as dire as those statistics might suggest. Pomeroy still rates Washington as one of the top 100 schools in the country (No. 96) and other rankings are more charitable. Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System puts the Huskies 81st, while Jeff Sagarin’s method settles on 87th. Still, Washington is 99th in RPI, and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament would already be difficult. The Huskies have work to do just to get back to the NIT.
During this rebuilding year, three factors in particular have hurt Washington. Let’s tackle them in ascending order.
1. Lack of a Go-To Scorer
The Huskies have plenty of valuable pieces on the roster. They just don’t quite fit together because they are supposed to complement a featured scorer–Terrence Ross–who is already in the NBA. When Ross committed to Washington while his teammate at Jefferson High School, Terrence Jones, de-committed, the theory went that Ross would ultimately be more valuable because he would stay around while Jones was headed to the league after a year. Instead, both players left after their sophomore seasons and Ross was drafted higher (No. 8) than Jones (No. 18).
Ross developed so quickly that it wasn’t until the Huskies’ NIT run that it became clear his stock was so high he had to declare for the draft. With Ross, Washington would have ideal complementary pieces in outside shooters C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs with rebounders and defenders Aziz N’Diaye and Desmond Simmons and a senior point guard (Abdul Gaddy) running the show.
Instead, Wilcox has been asked to serve as the Huskies’ featured scorer with impressive but mixed results. He ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 19.9 points per game without any loss of efficiency. Looking at Wilcox’s overall numbers, however, masks the inconsistency that is inevitable given his perimeter-oriented game. While Wilcox averages similar points per game in wins and losses, he takes more shots in losses. His True Shooting Percentage has been an incredible .650 in wins and a more average .556 in losses.
2. Perimeter Defense
Of course, Washington’s offense hasn’t really been the issue. The Huskies rank 60th in adjusted offensive efficiency–precisely the same as last year. The true culprit is the defensive end of the floor, where Washington ranks 175th, far and away the worst mark of the Romar era–including his first season. So it’s hard to pin this on the system. Part of the issue is nothing more than luck; opponents have made 37.3 percent of their threes against the Huskies this season, and Pomeroy’s research has shown that opponent three-point shooting is essentially nothing more than statistical noise over the course of a full year, let alone eight games.
Other issues figure to be more lasting. Washington isn’t forcing turnovers–they’re doing so at the worst rate in the Romar era–and has been one of the nation’s worst teams on the defensive glass (among major-conference teams, only UConn has been weaker). While that points a finger at the rebounding contributions from perimeter players, everything is connected to a larger issue. The Huskies keep allowing dribble penetration out of isolation plays and pick-and-rolls, which gets the team into scramble mode–running out wildly at open shooters, leading to either an extra pass for a score or a second chance.
Gaddy’s lateral quickness, lost when he tore his ACL as a sophomore, isn’t coming back. Nor is N’Diaye going to get any more mobile against the pick-and-roll. The only solution here may be a heavy dose of zone defense that keeps N’Diaye anchored in the paint and perimeter players in front of their men.
The other personnel issue that has hurt Washington defensively remains the team’s single biggest issue:
The Huskies have played three games this season with a full perimeter rotation: a 22-point home win over a decent Loyola (Md.) team, a neutral-site win in overtime over a Big East team (Seton Hall) and an 11-point neutral-site loss to one of the nation’s top 10 teams (Ohio State). Rated strictly based on those three games, the Huskies would be a top-15 team by Sagarin’s ratings. Let that sink in.
That should give a sense of how bad the team has been in the other five games. Washington’s rating in them would place 211th, right between NC Asheville and James Madison. According to Sagarin, within this tiny sample size, the Huskies are more than 18 points worse when one of their perimeter players (either Suggs or Andrew Andrews) has been injured. The impact on their Offensive Rating, per Pomeroy, is 15.6 points per 100 possessions.
The team’s fourth guard–sophomore Hikeem Stewart–hasn’t shown he belongs on the court. Finding his usage rate this season (7.5 percent of the team’s plays and just 4.2 percent of shots, via Kenpom.com) requires a microscope, and Stewart is undersized defensively. (He does deserve huge credit for coming up with the deflection that helped UW beat Cal State Fullerton last week.) Romar has also tried walk-on Quinn Sterling, who has provided energy but also looks overmatched by the speed of the D-I game.
StatSheet.com has Stewart with a -24 plus-minus this season, including a costly -13 stint in the loss to Albany. Sterling is a -3, and in the rest of the Nevada game the Huskies played the Wolfpack even. In the five games where Washington has been short-handed, they are -22 with either Stewart or Sterling on the floor and +7 otherwise. Of course, the impact of depth goes beyond just expanding the rotation. The remaining perimeter players, especially Gaddy and Wilcox, have been forced to play heavy minutes thus far, leaving them less energetic on defense.
Returning to the good news/bad news breakdown from the lede, there are two ways to view this information. When and if Andrews comes back from a sprained ankle and the Huskies get back to full strength for the first time all season (Shawn Kemp, Jr. also missed the first seven games before returning, though his absence was less costly), there’s reason to believe the team might be decent if not good. However, this issue will not go away all season. Washington will always be one misstep away from trouble on the perimeter, and Romar can’t trade an extra big man to add perimeter depth. So whether the rest of this season will match the start will depend largely on injury luck.