Huskies Set to Embark on Hoops Campaign

SEATTLE - It's a rebirth of sorts for the Washington Men's Basketball team when they tip off the season November 6th against Central Washington in their annual exhibition game. It may not count as an official game, but it will offer fans a chance to see a lot of new faces for the first time.

After missing their second consecutive NCAA Tournament this past March, Washington graduated three starters, including four-year starting point guard Abdul Gaddy. What comes next, is change.

Six newcomers will greet the purple and gold faithful this week. Their arrival will be met by a roster short on experience, but long on potential and a ton of playing time up for grabs. Though many of those new faces will dominate the Huskies' lineup, one key returner could spell the difference between the NCAA Tournament and Pac-12 irrelevance.

That player is C.J. Wilcox, and the biggest piece of this season's puzzle fell into place when he decided to postpone his NBA aspirations to return to the Huskies for his senior season. After playing injured all of last season with a stress fracture in his foot which was surgically repaired during the off-season, Wilcox is one of the top returning scorers in the conference. He's also one of the top three point shooters in the country. As a junior, Wilcox averaged 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and added a block and a steal per game for good measure. That's serious productivity, and on a bum wheel to boot. A healthy Wilcox is far more than just a scorer - he's one of the team's top rebounders and a solid defender as well.

Coach Romar talked about his standout senior. "C.J.'s is so versatile," said the dean of the Pac-12 coaches, now in his 12th season at Montlake. "He's bringing up the ball in transition, he's making plays like a point guard would. He's taking the ball to the basket. He's obviously shooting the basketball. He reads screens so well. He's playing like a veteran who really understands what's going on."

What did drop for Wilcox was his shooting percentage, which fell from 44 percent field goal percentage and 40 percent from three two years ago to 36 percent from three and 42 percent from the floor last season. That drop off isn't surprising given the extent of his injury and the fact that he couldn't practice with team as he nursed his ailing foot.

"Yeah, I'm done worrying about the foot," Wilcox recently shared. "It's good I can finally say that. I'm done with that. I took time in the summer after my surgery, did a little bit of work and then backed off a little bit and took another break and now just trying to ease into this year. But now I'm going with everything. I'm just trying to work out all the kinks right now."?

And while C.J. will continue to draw the attention of opposing defenses, the improved front court and familiarity with the high post offense should result in a bump in field goal efficiency for the Huskies' superb senior. He's expected to be back to full strength when the season starts and the Huskies could be in for a monster farewell tour from their dedicated scorer.

Wilcox's role is about the only holdover from last season. There's good reason for that. It was clear to anyone watching that the Huskies needed a course change and an infusion of new energy after underperforming in 2012/2013. More than that, they needed players that could come in a re-establish the program's tough identity after a season of "soft" play stymied its momentum.

Some of the wounds were self-inflicted. Washington paid a hefty price for skipping the 2012 recruiting class to focus their energies on 2013. It was a high risk, high reward gamble, and though the much-hyped blue chip class only partially materialized, the guard-heavy recruiting class served to restock the shelves with a new generation of Husky guards.

The influx of fresh faces comes at a critical transition period as the Huskies attempt to reassert themselves physically. Prior to Gaddy's arrival, the Huskies had been propelled to new heights behind the turbo-charged play of several top notch floor leaders, many of whom are now scorching the hardwood in the NBA. Former stars Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Justin Dentmon led UW's charge to the top of the Pac-12. But Gaddy was a different type of point guard; slower, more cerebral and deliberate and ultimately less effective than his more energetic predecessors. Without Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, the UW backcourt lost their only energizer bunnies and injuries put a fork in the season as early as December.

"We want to make sure that we play the way we're accustomed to playing," explained Romar. "That's an attack-type fashion, and that we're playing up-tempo basketball. Last year it seemed like the majority of our possessions were in the half court and it's a big goal of ours to make sure that doesn't happen this year. You have to play half-court basketball to be somewhat effective if you're going to be successful in your season, but our approach is that we would like to push the ball in the open floor as much as possible."

The coaching staff wisely recognized where they had veered off course, dialing up several energetic young guards who will join Wilcox and talented sophomore Andrew Andrews in hopes of re-establishing some back-court dominance. The highest profile player of the newcomers is McDonald's All American Nigel Williams-Goss. The former Findlay Prep and Team USA standout point guard is one of the most decorated prepsters to ever join the Huskies. Physically similar to Gaddy, the 6-foot-3 Portland native is a high energy floor manager with a reputation as a lockdown defender. Williams-Goss drew raves from coaches and scouts alike for his play leading the team in minutes for the U19 Team USA squad, who won a gold medal. He also won two prep national titles as the starting point guard for high school basketball's most consistently dominant team. His Findlay Prep career was highlighted by big shot after big shot including a game winner in the national title game in 2012. Bottom line: the kid only knows how to win.

"He has a special gift," gushed Romar about his freshman point guard. "Young people so often want to fight the system, they want to have their space, they want to do it their way so much that you have to fight that battle all the time. He has one agenda; to be the best and help his team be the best. That's his only agenda. When he's out there playing it's refreshing to see that. What he has done is develop a belief amongst his teammates that he's going to go out there and put forth his best effort.

"It's his makeup, his DNA," Romar continued. "Whatever he does out here, that's the way he handles himself in the classroom - just on top of things. When you're teaching, when you're talking, it's as if he's saying, I don't want to miss this. Teach me. I don't want to miss this. In his mind he's processing it. He's gifted that way. You don't see many people do that."

Wilcox shared similar observations of his new teammate. "Nigel's a student of the game," he said of Williams-Goss. "If you go where you're supposed to go he's going to find you. He's not too flashy. He just makes the right plays and is a solid, solid guy."

Williams-Goss will likely join Andrew Andrews, who possesses a similar competitive fire - and a better jumper than his 27 percent three point percentage suggests - which should give the Huskies one of the better defensive backcourt tandems in the conference. All of the tools are there for the talented sophomore to emerge as a top guard in the Pac-12, but now must put it all together on the court.

Williams-Goss and Andrews will dominate the minutes at the point and spend considerable time on the floor together, but there is some talent behind them. Junior Hikeem Stewart, freshmen Darin Johnson and Jahmel Taylor, plus junior junior college transfer Mike Anderson will all vie for big roles off a considerably deeper Husky bench.

Romar talked about the newcomers. "Jahmel is about 5-11; he's quick and he can push the ball with really good quickness but he can also guard the ball," said Romar. "The way we want to defend he really fits in well because he can pressure the basketball. He can break the defense down, he's a really good shooter.

"We've been really pleased with Darin Johnson. He's strong, he's athletic, he's aggressive. We would imagine that when he figures everything out in what we're trying to do he'll get to the foul line quite a bit and he compliments that aggressive mentality with a nice jump shot. Mike Anderson is a junior college transfer that is a versatile guard that can play all three positions out there on the floor and can defend all three positions…just kind of like a utility guy that can do a little bit of everything pretty well."

Most importantly, the infusion of talent should have a pronounced effect on Washington's backcourt strategy. The improved depth will allow Washington to increase tempo considerably. Though they won't have Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten or Quincy Pondexter soaring above the rim, Andrews, Williams-Goss, Darin Johnson and Mike Anderson are all much more comfortable pushing the ball up the floor and finishing in transition than the players they replace.

But it all starts with the defensive end, and last season the team defense simply wasn't very good. It's a key trait that has always characterized top Washington backcourts over the years, but was glaringly absent the last two seasons; intense, suffocating, pressure defense. Great Husky guards typically play with some nasty in their game. Whether it was a bi-product of decades of regional neglect from the national pundits, Will Conroy, Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson were poster children for on-court nastiness. Venoy Overton may have taken things to the extreme, but there's no denying the effectiveness of his intimidating on-court demeanor. It's a trait often defined as "playing with a chip on your shoulder". Washington hasn't had a player like that since Thomas left for the NBA, though Aziz N'Daiye did his best to carry on the tradition in the post. That trend should reverse itself this season with the motors the Huskies have recruited as long as they can navigate their way through the dramatic new rule changes that limit defenders against the man they're defending.

Romar did his best to explain the rule changes, and they are significant. "Thank goodness we've been able to have officials come in because it was a shock to our team system - not the system we run but just shock waves through all the practice," he said. "We can't do anything! If I look at 'em too long, is that a foul too? (laughs) But that's how the game is going to be called, and as we told our team - they aren't going to call it one way for Washington and not everyone else. We better adjust, and I think our guys have done a pretty good job of adjusting to it, of not putting your hands on the offensive player so much when they have the basketball. But it was a shock at first. Guys were like 'I didn't touch him!'

"Last year I don't know what we would have done if they had put the rule in. If you don't have good depth, you just have to play a lot of zone and really sit back. It's hard to really pressure if you don't have a lot of depth because of the fouls that are going to be called. And if the fouls aren't called maybe they aren't called because you're so tentative. It's going to have an effect one way or another. Again, that's why we're trying in practice to simulate it as much as we can so we can become somewhat accustomed to defending it without being able to use our hands. There's a flip side to that too…it's not like football where you play offense and then leave the field. In basketball, that means we get to drive too. We have to be aggressive and be attacking too because the same rules apply to them on defense too."

Williams-Goss was more candid. "It's been way different," the frosh point guard said. "It's taken a lot of the physicality out of the game."

The benefits of the defensive boost and increased tempo should have a tangible effect on the offense which sputtered at just 67 points a game last season. Observers have pointed to the Huskies' newly implemented high post offense as a culprit for the reduced offensive productivity, but the logic is flawed. The primary responsibility of the high post offense is to get offensive players open shots. It worked - The Huskies just didn't make them. The Dawgs connected on just 43.6 percent of their attempts, the lowest figure since Romar's first season.

It wasn't the new offense but the lack of defense that contributed most to the Huskies scoring deficiencies. No transition offense led to no easy buckets. And when the offense worked to create opportunities, the Huskies couldn't convert.

A new point guard and defensive upgrades aren't the only major changes. There's another wrinkle for the Huskies this season, even rarer still. For the first time in the Lorenzo Romar era, the Washington Huskies have post depth. That's right. Washington won't be forced to use guards in the front court unless they want to or the situation dictates it.

"You watch our team…I believe this is the tallest roster since we've been here," said Romar with a grin. "Jernard Jarreau is 6-foot-10, Robert Upshaw, who is redshirting, is a 7-footer; Gilles is close to 7-foot. Shawn Kemp is 6-9, Perris is 6-9 - we just haven't had that since we've been here and they are all pretty good basketball players."

For the first time in years, the Huskies will have a five-man front court rotation boasting considerable offensive firepower. University of San Fransisco senior transfer Perris Blackwell is a 6-foot-9, 280-pound mountain of a man who was named honorable mention all conference in the West Coast Conference before transferring to the Huskies. As a junior at USF, his stellar .575 shooting percentage would have led the Huskies last season, and he'll be a fixture in the starting lineup from day one. Despite his considerable girth Blackwell is surprisingly agile, possesses soft hands and excellent touch in the paint. He'll be one of the Huskies' primary scoring targets.

"Perris is - boy I know we only have him for a year but I wish we had him for a year and at least one more game or two more games or whatever we could get out of him more than a year, but we're going to enjoy this year having him because he's experienced," Romar said of Blackwell. "He's not going to be intimidated, and he's a good basketball player. He gives us an option that we just haven't had in a few years, and that is a guy that we can throw the ball to and he's going to do something productive with it."

"It's going to be great," agreed Williams-Goss. "Just getting the ball to Perris in the post is going to take the pressure off a lot of the guards. They have to pick their poison; he can kick it out and shoot and catch and pass. He can do a little bit of everything, so it's going to be hard for the defense to choose who they are going to guard in the game. It's been great for me, I look for him every time down the floor."

Fall camp's biggest competition has been at the power forward position. Desmond Simmons returns to his role as the team's "junkyard dog" and is one of the Huskies' toughest players. Though he lacks the athleticism of some of his flashier teammates, his toughness and experience will be crucial as a stabilizing presence while the team finds its legs. Shawn Kemp, Jr. returns as well, hoping to build on his stellar 15 point, 10 rebound performance in Washington's first round NIT loss to BYU last spring. Sophomore Jernard Jarreau may have the most upside of any player on the roster, and is hoping for a breakout season. Despite his slight build, JJ's length and quickness make him a versatile defender capable of defending multiple front court positions.

Romar singled out Jarreau as most improved from last season. "Jernard Jarreau has improved his skill set. He'd be the main one that sticks out to me," he said. "Finishing - Plays that he would make it to the goal-line but never quite get over the goal-line? Now he's getting over the goal-line. I think it's a little bit of strength but I think it's also a little bit of know-how. He's just gotten better, more reps - maturity."

Though both Kemp and Jarreau are undeniably talented, they struggled with consistency last season, and both players need to be tougher in the paint and on the glass. Finally, 6-foot-11 sophomore transfer Gilles Dierickx brings a polished low post game and solid athleticism to the lineup. A bit on the skinny side, the skilled forward doesn't shy from contact in the paint, adding another quality dimension to a team that typically lacks players of his caliber on the depth chart.

That mix of depth could create the most offensively productive front court since Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman, who combined to average 28.8 points per game in 2007. That duo was exceptional, but with Darnell Gant and Artem Wallace as back-ups, Washington's options were limited off the bench. Never has Romar had so many big, quality bodies.

All in all, things are looking up for the Huskies. Were it not for the fact that the Pac-12 has improved by an equal or even greater margin, the Huskies might be competing for a conference title. As it is, Washington is projected to finish eighth in the pre-season media poll, and that might be selling UW a tad short. Behind transfer Arsalan Kazemi and a pair of freshmen guards, the Oregon Ducks came from nowhere last season to reach the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. There are a lot of similarities between them and this year's Husky squad. The Dawgs first need to shake off the rust and remember how to win a big game on the road, but with a deeper roster and a re-established defensive identity, there's enough talent to make things interesting if they catch lightning in a bottle.

The Huskies aren't going to be afforded the benefit of an easy non-conference schedule. The season opener November 10th against former UW assistant Cameron Dollar's improved Seattle University Redhawks will provide an immediate test to the reshuffled lineup, and things only get tougher from there. Pre-season Big West Conference favorite UC Irvine follows on November 14th before the schedule really heats up. Washington heads cross-country for a high profile showdown against the Indiana Hoosiers, followed two days later by either Boston College or Connecticut (a team they will face in Seattle on December 22nd as well) and then another tough road match-up on the road at San Diego State December 8th.

The improvement in the Pac-12 - which includes an Arizona squad with Final Four aspirations - could be a boon for the Hoop Dawgs. If history is a guide, the Huskies have always performed better as the underdog. That will require them to better navigate a daunting non-conference schedule more effectively than in recent years. That calendar could be the team's best friend or its worst enemy. During Romar's tenure, the program has been at its best when faced with long odds, and the front loaded non-conference slate gives the Huskies a chance to make a name for themselves against minimal expectations.

After an off-season of reflection and soul searching, Washington will blaze new trails this season. No matter where the trail leads, a new era has begun at Montlake. Top Stories