Beach’s Bits: Life After Upshaw

Washington entered the 2014-2015 season with the most promising front court of the Lorenzo Romar era. After rising as high as 13th in the country after an impressive 11-0 start, the Huskies quickly found out how thin the line between success and failure can be.

Largely overlooked by the national media, the Huskies knew they were on to something prior to the season. A summer of subtle winks and barely-contained nods led up to the start of fall practice. They knew they could have something special, especially with their big men.

Shawn Kemp, UW’s lone contributing holdover from last season, was fully recovered from his bout with Graves disease, regaining his explosiveness while packing on muscle mass. He was to be flanked by seven-foot enigma Robert Upshaw, who would ultimately emerge as the country’s leading shot-blocker, a healthy Jernard Jarreau, and promising Canadian prospect Tristan Etienne. There was also Gilles Dierickx, the Euro big who transferred from Florida International.

The Huskies front court oozed potential, but what a difference three months makes in the ever-evolving world of college basketball.

Shortly before the team’s first scrimmage, Etienne abruptly left the team, saying his heart wasn't in it. At the time, it was a disappointing loss but manageable as far as the numbers were concerned. Without missing a beat, his scholarship was quickly filled by the coaching staff for the 2015 recruiting class.

Little did we realize how devastating his departure would eventually become, since he would almost certainly be starting next to Kemp if he were on the roster today.

In early January, the Huskies were dealt a second, more devastating blow when Jarreau went down with another knee injury, although this one was not considered nearly as severe as the one that kept him out all of last season. He’s expected to be held out of action until late February.

The Huskies were a fast starting team during non-conference play with Jarreau and Kemp in the front court. Though neither possessed the eye-popping shot-blocking instincts of Upshaw, the pair played well together and the team synced comfortably with the duo holding down the paint and Upshaw coming off the bench.

The Huskies fought on, permanently transitioning to a 2-3 zone in an effort to keep legs fresh and the available bigs out of foul trouble. The team regained its composure, winning three conference games in a row after a four game slide threatened to derail their promising start.

Then came the death blow; Robert Upshaw had been kicked off the team. It was an outcome deemed probable - even inevitable - by many insiders long before he ever stepped foot on the court. For a program that has struggled to find quality post players, Upshaw was a once-in-a-decade talent, and as such, deemed worthy of a scholarship to Washington despite a back story that would keep most suitors at arm’s length. But Upshaw was a player that could mean the difference between the Huskies making the NCAA Tournament and a bottom half finish.

There were plenty of red flags during Upshaw’s redshirt season, and they were handled in-house. He was given a chance to earn his way back onto the court with good behavior. The optimism about Upshaw’s game proved well-founded. He emerged from the offseason a superbly gifted teammate who appeared to have learned during his hiatus after a rocky start to his college career at Fresno State. He quickly won over fans and media members with his well-spoken nature and charismatic personality. And then there was that wingspan and uncanny ability to protect the rim in a way few have in college basketball.

Sadly it wouldn't last, and Upshaw was ultimately unable to keep his demons at bay long enough to finish the season as a Husky. The lack of self control would not only be his downfall, potentially costing him millions as a professional player, but also the likely downfall of the team he once played for. It was an unfortunate betrayal of a program that had embraced him as one of their own. He burned his teammates, and worse, he burned Lorenzo Romar, the man who gave him a second chance at life and another shot at basketball redemption.

When Washington took the floor Wednesday night against Stanford, they were clearly a very different team from the one that had won a hard-earned split on the road against the Rocky Mountain schools. With nowhere else to turn, 6-foot-7 freshman Donaven Dorsey started the game in place of Upshaw, and the game unfolded in predictable fashion. Dorsey is a talented prospect with a bright future, but he's a not a post player, nor will he ever be. But he's the only player over 6-foot-5 besides Kemp and Dierickx (who is a fringe Pac-12 player at best) and the team’s only front court option other than 6-foot-4 Mike Anderson.

Thanks to some bad luck, bad breaks and Upshaw’s bad behavior, the Huskies’ next six weeks will be summed up this way: bad. It could be as rough a stretch as the Huskies have had to endure since Romar came back to his alma mater. Kemp is the only viable post option on the roster and he can't play 40 minutes a game, which means the Huskies will have to play five guard lineups unless Dierickx can provide serviceable minutes. Washington has had to play small before, but five guard lineups have been very far and few between, and when they have been used it was with players like Brandon Roy on the floor. There’s no Brandon Roy in this group.

There has to be sympathy for Romar. This is obviously not the outcome he envisioned when he started imagining his super-sized front court last summer. Though they'd never admit it, and never should, the coaching staff would love to fast-forward to next summer when the finest recruiting class in the program’s history is set to arrive on campus. Until than, Dawg fans will have plenty of time to contemplate what might have been, and what UW had when everything was in place and clicking.


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