Excitement is a VERY strong word when it comes to the new season of Husky basketball starting last night. Even something like “interest” needs a qualifier, but I’ll give you that I had mild interest in taking a look at what this team has morphed into. I knew what time the game started last night, I made plans ahead of time that I would sit in front of my television at that set time, and indeed I watched the entirety of said game (up until the final 90 seconds or so, when the outcome was fully decided).
The interest – mild as it was – came about because of all the transfers that took place in this past offseason. The broadcast said eight Huskies from last year went elsewhere, and that we brought in seven new players to replace them. I don’t know where all those guys went, but considering they made up the vast majority of a TERRIBLE basketball team, that’s a case of 100% addition-by-subtraction.
So, the newness of this squad alone piqued my curiosity. It’s hard to imagine a basketball team being much worse than the Huskies were last year; maybe this team would be better? At the very least, it’s different, and that’s enough for me. For now, anyway.
I’ll also say that the Huskies not looking like total dogshit in their exhibition game last week was at least somewhat encouraging. So many times the last couple seasons, the Huskies have played down to vastly inferior opponents (or not-so-inferior opponents, as it turned out). Teams from major conferences shouldn’t lose to teams you’ve never heard of in their non-conference slates.
The Northern Illinois Huskies are a team I’ve never heard of. Last night, Washington lost to them 71-64.
In large part, it looked like the Same Old Huskies, by which I mean the bad teams of the last two seasons, not the two good ones where Mike Hopkins was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. The defense was slightly improved over last season (mostly thanks to the incorporation of more man-schemes over zone), but they still managed to give up too many WIDE open looks from beyond the arc. Northern Illinois took advantage, hitting 12 of 23.
When a team is that red-hot shooting the ball, holding them to 71 points isn’t the worst thing in the world for a defense. Washington also introduced more of a full-court press-style defense that forced a lot of Northern Illinois turnovers; I loved this! There were 20 Northern Illinois turnovers, plus another 12 steals for the Huskies. The defense was NOT the problem (though, it could always be better).
The story of this game was the Washington offense, and more specifically, the Washington free throw shooting.
21 of 36. In a game we lost by 7. Make HALF of the free throws we missed, and this is a different ballgame. That includes at least two front-ends of one-and-ones in the first half that were bricked. And don’t think I’m putting this on Nate Roberts and his 4 for 9 effort (I’ll say more on him in a bit); I don’t expect big men to hit more than 50% of their FTs. These were misses by bona fide shooters! Jamal Bey was 3 for 7! Terrell Brown was 4 for 8! These are guards who are supposed to be BETTER than this.
The thing is, I loved how aggressive Washington was in driving the paint. Northern Illinois was in foul trouble early in both halves, with two guys fouling out completely. We had SO MANY chances to take control of this game at the line, and we failed miserably.
Shooting in general has been a problem for Washington for a couple years now; last night, we hit only 3 of 18 from behind the arc. That’s going to happen. I would hope there are MORE games than in years past when we can approach 45-50% from three (those have been a rare luxury of late), but we were also straight-up God-awful with our overall shooting percentage (20 for 75).
Northern Illinois did a pretty good job of slowing our fast break opportunities and forcing us into half-court sets. I was not encourged by what I saw from the offense in this capacity, other than our ability to get to the free throw line. Jamal Bey still hasn’t taken that next step in his aggressiveness; Emmitt Matthews was very active, but off-the-mark all night; and Daejon Davis was an offensive nightmare for Washington, hitting only 1 of 10 shots.
Terrell Brown was encouraging, leading the way with 22 points on 9/24 shooting. He was driving the lane with regularity and making things happen for this team; I look forward to seeing more of him as the season progresses (ideally with a better shooting percentage on drives in the paint).
The player of the game for Washington, though, was Nate Roberts. I’ll admit, my hopes were awfully low for him heading into the year. He’s always struck me as a lumbering oaf who is a foul machine and incompetent at both ends of the court. But, last night was a revelation! For starters, he’s really worked on his body; dude is jacked up. And that seems to have translated into improved play on both ends of the court, and maybe more importantly, improved confidence. He finished the game with 10 points and 19 rebounds! 12 of those boards were on the offensive glass! He was single-handedly keeping us in this game during the vast middle stretch; it was unfortunate he ended up fouling out the way he did (on a loose ball dive where the other guy ran into him), but the game was already getting out of hand by this point and I don’t think there was anything he could’ve done once Northern Illinois started hitting those daggers late in the second half.
I’ll tell ya, Nate Roberts impressed the hell out of me! I don’t know if he can keep it up, but it’s clear he’ll be no pushover. It is fair to wonder if Roberts will find himself in foul trouble more often than not, but if he starts getting the benefit of the doubt, he could be among the best big men in the Pac-12 this season. Given our lack of depth along the front, this was the most pleasant surprise I could’ve been given.
All that being said, I’m still annoyed Washington lost this one. I don’t think Northern Illinois is very good at all. I do think they had one guy – Trendon Hankerson – who was absolutely amazing, and on fire (hitting 9 of 15 shots, including 6/11 from three, for 28 points to lead the way). He might be that good, or he might’ve just had an abnormally-hot shooting night, which makes the defeat all the more unfortunate, because Northern Illinois didn’t have anyone else who could beat us. The thing is, Hankerson was setting up for shots SO FAR beyond the arc that I’m not sure how you defend that with our zone. He cooled off considerably when we went man-to-man, but as soon as we went back to zone late in the game, he started ripping off wide open threes again, and that was that.
Thankfully, there’s another home game tomorrow against another directional school I’ve never heard of (Northern Arizona Lumberjacks). We’ll see really quickly whether or not this was an unlucky first game, or if this was an omen of more bad games to come.
The media picked Washington to be eleventh out of the twelve Pac-12 teams. So far, I’d say that feels about right. BUT, I’m more encouraged by this team’s potential than I was about last year’s squad. I think it’s far likelier that Washington out-performs expectations than living down to them. I’m not saying we’ll make the NCAA Tournament or anything; I’d say the chances of that are remote-at-best. But, we could make some noise and score some upsets, for sure. The NIT might even be in play, if we manage to come together.