Washington’s coach has six freshmen to work into a lineup picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 race. Art Thiel and Steve Rudman debate whether UW has what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
STEVE: The main question with any college basketball team this time of year is whether it has what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament field. With Washington having lost three key operatives — Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday — and eight new players, including six scholarship freshmen, on the roster, I don’t know that we can forecast with any accuracy what the Huskies might do. But I love the team’s upside. It’s going to be fun to watch it develop.
ART: This is the least experienced roster in coach Lorenzo Romar’s 10 years at UW. That’s a serious liability for these guys because Romar’s emphasis has always been team defense, which requires a lot of teaching and practice. The adoption has always happened, but the nonconference schedule, which starts at 2 p.m. Saturday against Georgia State, is going to be full of missteps and shortcomings.
STEVE: Where the Huskies are really inexperienced: the front line, losing Bryan-Amaning and Holiday, both good defensive players. Just two veterans return here, senior Darnell Gant and still-raw center Aziz N’Diaye. So this will be an area of vulnerability and it also presents a depth issue. Desmond Simmons, a red-shirt freshman from Vallejo, CA., had the exhibition start against Seattle Pacific (six rebounds). Romart is going to have to use him a lot, and early. Even if Simmons develops faster than expected, the front line is going to be paper thin.
ART: Romar talked this week about how much more of a role N’Diaye will have — presuming he can stay out of foul trouble. As a mobile 7-footer with long arms, he’s a threat to block any shot in the paint and takes a lot of pressure off perimeter defenders. He sat out the first exhibition game with concussion, but Romar claims to have been pleased with his progress. Doubtful he’ll be a offensive force, but that isn’t a problem for this team.
STEVE: Offense is going to come from the guards, and there Romar is loaded with maybe the most talent and depth in the Pac-12 Conference. Abdul Gaddy, who missed most of last year with a torn ACL, has made a complete recovery. Terrence Ross really impressed as a freshman. C.J. Wilcox is an excellent long-distance shooter (five 3s against SPU), and everyone will clamor to see the freshman, Tony Wroten Jr., whom a lot of people think is one of the quickest players Romar has ever had.
ART: Romar is going to have himself a chore in managing minutes and roles among these guys. As a junior with the most experience, Gaddy will be the floor leader and has shown little hangover from his knee surgery and rehab. Ross, who made the Pac-10 tourney all tournament team in March after averaging 15 points, really showed his potential late in the season. He’ll start at the other guard, with Wilcox and Wroten coming off the bench. The battle of wills between Romar and Wroten should be one of the more entertaining subplots.
STEVE: Based on some conversations I’ve had, Wroten lacks maturity and can play out of control. But the same people who tell me that also say Wroten is the most physically gifted guard Romar has had, and he had Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy.
ART: In the exhibition game against SPU, he flashed what former coach Al MGuire called “French pastry” with a couple of moves and no-look passes that were strictly for show. Romar doesn’t have much time for that from anyone, especially a freshman. Wroten claims he’s out to prove all the haters wrong about his me-first reputation, and I suspect that will be the case in his first year. But his pedigree and talents are so off the charts that I think he will find the pastry irresistible at times. But if he commits to defense, Romar may indulge him a little.
STEVE: With Romar trying to work in eight new players, the early schedule is in Washington’s favor: Georgia State, Florida Atlantic, Houston Baptist, Nevada, St. Louis (Romar’s former team). There are a couple of stiff tests at Madison Square Garden in early December (No. 22 Marquette Dec. 6 and No. 6 Duke Dec. 10), but Romar has a chance to stack up some wins, get his young players introduced to college basketball, and have them ready for the Pac-12 opener on Dec. 29 against Oregon State.
ART: But no Gonzaga. Heh-heh. That’s a topic for another day. Marquette and Duke are two loads, but the Huskies have get serious in the non-conference schedule for both RPI rankings and Pac-12 prep. Romar said this week that freshmen often are surprised to discover a higher gear is needed for conference play because Pac-12 opponents scout well and have the familiarity unavailable to non-conference foes. Plus, the new kids have to work through the emotional agony of Pac-12 officiating.
STEVE: And we’ll leave conference officiating for another day. Back to Wroten: While most people think he will have the biggest impact among the newcomers, I wouldn’t rule out Simmons, simply because Romar has an overload of guards and a dearth of big men. It will be interesting to see how Shawn Kemp Jr. factors into the mix.
ART: Naturally, Kemp will be an object of fascination for Seattle fans. Apparently he is progressing faster than expected, especially after losing some baby fat. His body and movements are a little like his dad, but isn’t nearly as far along at the same age. Then again, who would be? The other newcomer who intrigues is freshman Martin Breunig (“Broy-nig”), a 6-8 swingman and the fifth player in Washington hoops history from Germany. He’s smooth, mature and versatile, which may make him a quicker candidate for minutes that the other new guys.
STEVE: At the beginning of the month, Pac-12 media picked the Huskies to finish fourth in the conference race (UCLA was a unanimous pick to win the conference title). I was a little surprised UW finished that high considering how many new players Romar is dealing with. On the other hand, fourth might be a commentary on his good recruiting.
ART: The Huskies will definitely benefit from the return of Scott Suggs, the 6-6 guard who’s out until mid-December with a toe injury. He’s a senior that does most things well and can start or come off the bench. Hard to figure out a starting lineup beyond N’Diaye, Gaddy and Ross, but Gant and Simmons opened against SPU. Romar will probably use half-a-dozen different lineups before conference play.
STEVE: He pretty much did that last year when the Huskies went on to win the Pac-10 tournament and make the NCAA Tournament field. I know Romar’s Huskies are exceptionally inexperienced, but they can improve a lot between now and March. I think Romar will make the NCAA field for the fourth consecutive year, which would be a school record.
ART: I’m a little more skeptical. I see a lot of similar players who are a little too young this season. Ross could be a breakout 20-point scorer, but if N’Diaye can’t stay healthy or foul-free, they’re a bubble team that could fall into the NIT. Next year, watch out.