BY Steve Rudman 06:30AM 12/28/2014

Huskies on verge of best start in Romar era

After three seasons of inertia, the Washington men’s basketball team, off to an 11-0 start, has emerged as one of the top stories of 2014.

Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies are off to an 11-0 start, tied for the best during his 13 seasons as  UW’s head coach. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

In late October, Pac-12 media members, assembled in San Francisco, predictably selected Arizona to finish first in the conference basketball race. At the same time, they also forecast that the Washington Huskies would wind up sixth, a not-unexpected vote given that UW lost leading scorer C.J. Wilcox to the NBA and has been a program gripped by inertia for the past three seasons.

Now, two months later, Washington’s is one of the country’s biggest turnaround stories. At 11-0, the Huskies are off to their best start since 2005-06, Brandon Roy’s final season, and also the most recent visit by Washington to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.

The Huskies are 13th in both wire service polls – highest since Nov. 22, 2010 — and ranked 13th nationally in RPI. To underscore the improvement, the Huskies were No. 97 last year and 99th the year before that. The last time a Lorenzo Romar team started 11-0, it finished with a No. 35 RPI ranking.

Unlike previous seasons, when Washington bloated its non-conference record with a spate of cupcakes, the Huskies already scored two victories over ranked opponents, 49-36 over then-No. 13 San Diego State Dec. 27, and 69-67 over No. 15 Oklahoma a week ago at the MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas.

This is the first year Washington has defeated two non-conference opponents ranked among the top 15.

Washington is one of only eight Division I schools undefeated as the non-conference season comes to a conclusion. For the Huskies, that will happen Sunday when they host Stony Brook (7-6) of Long Island, NY., and the American East Conference, in advance of the Pac-12 opener Friday at California.

The Seawolves don’t look like much (the South Dakota State Jackrabbits didn’t either three years ago, before trouncing Washington’s eventual Pac-12 regular-season champions 92-73 at Alaska Airlines Arena), having lost all six road games. If UW can avoid ennui, it will move into a third-place tie for the best start in school history in the NCAA Tournament era (since 1939):

Season Coach Start Finish Postseason
1975-76 Marv Harshman 14-0 23-5 L to Missouri 1st round NCAA tourney
1938-39 Hec Edmundson 13-0 20-5 Not invited (lost last 2 to Oregon)
1946-47 Hec Edmundson 12-0 16-8 Not invited to NCAAs (invitation only)
1941-42 Hec Edmundson 11-0 18-7 Not invited to NCAAs (6 conf. losses)
2005-06 Lorenzo Romar 11-0 26-7 NCAA Sweet 16, lost to UConn in OT
2014-15 Lorenzo Romar 11-0 TBD Huskies face Stony Brook Sunday
1950-51 Tippy Dye 10-0 21-6 2-1 record in NCAAs at Kansas City
1969-70 Tex Winter 8-0 17-9 No tourney, went 7-7 in conference
1990-91 Lynn Nance 7-0 14-14 No postseason after 5-13 conf. record

As Pac-12 media forecast, this was not supposed to be a very good Washington team, no better than last year’s 17-15 club that went 9-9 in conference play and was ousted by Utah 67-61 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.

In addition to losing Wilcox and fellow seniors Desmond Simmons and Perris Blackwell, Romar’s returnees did not seem to have enough inside muscle to contend. But Shawn Kemp Jr., has been a revelation and newcomer Robert Upshaw a sensation in a limited but well-defined role.

Through his first three seasons, Kemp, son of the former Sonics icon, averaged 1.6, 6.3 and 4.4 points a game, and less than a rebound a game. But after intense weight-room work and an improved diet that helps manage symptoms of Graves disease, Kemp is averaging 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds while hitting 65.3 percent of his shots – 10 percent better than any year of his UW career.

A seven-foot sophomore transfer from Fresno State who sat out last season, Upshaw took all of four games to enter the Washington record books with eight blocks against San Jose State. With 51 rejections, he’s not only the NCAA leader, he is 16 blocks away from matching the UW single-season record of 67 with the conference schedule in front of him.

If Upshaw could be classified as a one-man team, he would rank 72nd out of 345 D-1 teams in blocks per game (4.6).

Upshaw is foul prone and free-throw challenged (44.4 percent), but has made a huge defensive difference, the main reason they executed such a turnaround.

Washington is allowing 58.4 points per game (while scoring 72.1), not only the lowest of the Romar era but on pace for the lowest since 1960 (current team shown for comparison purposes):

Year Coach PA UW Rec. Skinny
2014 Lorenzo Romar 58.4 11-0 Huskies 18-0 to start 2014-15 season
1960 John Grayson 58.6 15-13 2-9 conference mark doomed Huskies
1984 Marv Harshman 58.7 24-7 Won Pac-10, lost to Dayton in NCAAs
1985 Marv Harshman 58.8 22-10 Won Pac-10, lost to Kentucky in NCAAs
1953 Tippy Dye 59.1 28-3 Reached Final Four in Kansas City
1963 John Grayson 59.2 13-13 6-6 league mark kept UW out of tourney
1961 John Grayson 59.7 13-13 Had a tepid 6-6 record in league play

The final reason UW has been successful is it re-commitment to rebounding. With Upshaw at 7.1, Mike Anderson at 5.7 and Nigel Williams-Goss at 5.5 per game, the Huskies are averaging 40.5, up from 34.5 last year.

It’s too early to know whether Romar is coaching one of his better teams. The Pac-12 schedule is always a humbling gauntlet. Non-conference records rarely provide substantial clues. But a good sign is that the Huskies have three come-from-behind wins in 11 outings and have won five times without a loss away from Alaska Airlines Arena.



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