The Huskies have played just one game since their big win over San Diego State. The big win that finally got us back in the world of the ranked basketball teams. The big win that spells great things for our post-season chances.
That one game was on Sunday, at home, against Eastern Washington. Doesn’t sound like much, right? I mean, the Big Sky Conference? Come on. But, like the dogfight the Husky football team found itself in with Eastern earlier this year, the basketball team was in a similarly-contested fuckfest. The difference this time, however, is Eastern figures to be in the NCAA tournament this year (or, at least, be a major contender for its conference’s automatic bid, if not a contender for an at-large bid). They’re a Top 50 RPI opponent, and those are always the ones you want to win, no matter how small of a school.
Going into this game, you knew it was going to be vastly different than the defensive snoozefest that was the San Diego State game. Eastern can shoot the ball, they like to run, and they’ve got scorers at pretty much all positions. Indeed, the Huskies struggled to keep pace early, going into halftime down 11.
That’s when the stars of the team took over. As usual, the Huskies leaned heavily on Andrews and NWG, who put up 18 & 19 points respectively. Both players were relatively cold in the first half, but ended up hitting some big shots down the stretch to seal the deal.
The star of the game, though, was Robert Upshaw. The Huskies saw what’s possible when you unleash the big man and let him start to play more extended minutes (26 in this game, which is a season high). He still didn’t find himself starting in the second half, but after a few minutes, he played the duration (sitting out a couple of late possessions, as he’s a free throw liability). Upshaw finished with 21 points (8 of 10 from the field, almost exclusively right around the basket), 9 rebounds, and 6 blocks. And OH MY GOD, were those blocks impressive!
I missed quite a bit of the first half, but it sounded like Eastern was hot from the perimeter. Which is why the second half was so shocking, because it seemed to me that the Eagles were making a concerted effort to drive the lane and attack Upshaw on a near-constant basis. I don’t know if that was our defense funnelling them to the paint, or if that was a conscious decision they made, but it was foolish and ultimately cost them the game.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Eastern probably wanted to try to get Upshaw into foul trouble. Needless to say, he’s the best defensive big man we’ve got on the team. Shawn Kemp Jr. didn’t fare very well in this game, and overall hasn’t had a huge impact in the last few games. And Jernard Jarreau saw his minutes cut drastically in this game, with Upshaw being so effective. Upshaw did have a couple fouls in the first half within a few minutes of one another that probably cut into his minutes. But, guess what: he ended up the game with two fouls, while playing almost all of the second half.
That’s the thing that will take some time for people to understand: Robert Upshaw isn’t a walking foul-out like most big men we’ve had in years past. He’s very balanced, very poised, and able to keep his position without biting on ball fakes all the time. Truly, he’s the most remarkable defensive big man I’ve ever seen in a Husky uniform. He’s got the size everyone covets. He’s got the long arms. But, this was really the game that put me on notice: Robert Upshaw is FOR SURE an NBA player. If he can develop even a small semblance of a post game, he’s going to go far in the league. That, and I suppose improved free throw shooting.
The Huskies often found themselves behind in the second half, down anywhere from three to ten points. It seemed like every time we went on a run to get it close, they’d counter with some crazy shot to balloon it back out. If the Huskies were going to win that game, they had one shot, and it was at the charity stripe. We put the Eagles into foul trouble pretty early on in the second half, which was the way to go. Drive the lane, draw fouls, get to the line. Slow the game down, get some cheap points, and wear them down with your superior talent. Which is what the Huskies did, but we SUCKED at free throws. Upshaw finished 5 of 14 from the line, but I think he started out something like 2 for his first 10. We eventually turned our team percentage back to respectable, going 24 of 37 overall, but that required a massive effort out of our starting guards (Andrews, NWG, and Mike Anderson) going a combined 17 of 19. We’ll need Upshaw and Kemp to be better at the line this year if we don’t want to kick away games we should probably win.
Overall, though, that’s a pretty small criticism. I’d be much more upset if I’m an Eagles fan. Aside from constantly targeting Upshaw being the losing battle that it was, their guys were jacking up some RIDICULOUS threes from about 30 feet, fading away. I know, if you’re a Big Sky school, going into an opposing Pac-12 arena, you’ve got to have some hot shooting luck on your side, but they almost had as many airballs as they did made threes (finishing 10 of 30 overall from behind the arc). As it stood, the Eagles’ free throw shooting really gave them their best shot in this thing (they finished 17 of 21 at the line, which is VERY impressive for a smaller school on the road).
The Huskies find themselves 8-0 and #16 in the nation (up one spot from last week). We play Grambling State tomorrow, before a neutral-site game against Oklahoma on Saturday. Overall, we’ve got just four more non-conference games before we face Cal on January 2nd. The Sooners are 15th in the nation, and will be the biggest challenge before we go into conference play. If we manage to win these next four games, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see us approach the Top 10. Even if we slip up on Saturday, if we can pull out the other three games, we should at the very least head into Pac-12 play as a ranked team, which is good for everyone.