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A Needed Boost of Optimism about UW Basketball

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The reasons you should step back from the cliff following a miserable 3-6 finish to the regular season/early tourney exit

NCAA Basketball: Washington at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way. That sucked. That was not a fun way to end the season. Exactly 4 weeks ago on February 8th the Huskies entered a road game with Oregon with a record of 17-6. At that point all the Huskies needed to do to seemingly clinch an NCAA bid was sweep OSU, Colorado, and Cal and then win one of: home against Oregon, home against Utah, at Stanford. It turned out that the Huskies lost all of those last three in addition to a pair of heart breakers against Oregon State and the NCAA hope seems like a distant memory.

I don’t feel great right now. You probably don’t either. I have all off-season to wonder “what could have been?” Right now I need to get my head on straight so I can properly enjoy the NCAA tournament without heartache. So here’s an injection of sunshine and rainbows.

This is absolutely only providing one side of the argument. I am going to list the 3 biggest reasons you should be feeling good about UW basketball without mentioning any of the bad. And yet everything I’m going to say is true. If you want to feel miserable and wallow in self pity I recommend going elsewhere.

  1. The Huskies surpassed 95% of fan/media expectations going into the season.

Let’s find some quotes from the rest of our UWDP contributors during our pre-season shoot around, shall we?

“I think the best case for this team is .500 in out of conference and five conference wins (basically, winning the home games we have against similar competition). That puts us a little better record-wise than where we were at a year ago.”- Chris Landon

“The best-case scenario is that the team doesn’t look like a total embarrassment all season.”- Ben Knibbe

“If they can flirt with .500 at the end of the season, we can call it a success.”- Jason Cruz

“The best case scenario is a spot on the bubble but ultimately an NIT berth. You have to squint really hard for this team to finish better than 7th in conference so I’ll say that’s the best case.”- Max Vrooman

This team finished significantly better than 3 out of the 4 and basically finished as my exact best case scenario. The Huskies were picked to finish 10th in the preseason media poll and ended up finishing 7th. Most fans in the comments didn’t put win/loss totals out there but stated that they’d be satisfied with a competitive, watchable product. Mission accomplished.

2. A number of players saw large leaps in individual performance.

Remember how you felt about Dominic Green last year? He was literally the worst offensive player in the conference during the 2016/17 season. He shot 28.1% from 2-point range and 17.3% from 3-point range in Pac-12 play. This year? Green was 2nd in the conference in offensive efficiency in Pac-12 play shooting 46.4% from 3-point range during that time.

Matisse Thybulle was one of the better defenders in the conference last season but this year became slam dunk the best defender in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the entire country when deployed in the zone. Over the last decade the only player from a major conference to have anywhere near the combination of blocks and steals as Matisse was Gary Payton Jr. at Oregon State. His numbers were significantly better than those of Michael Carter-Williams who used his success in the same position at Syracuse to become a 1st round draft pick.

Noah Dickerson was frustratingly inconsistent as a free throw shooter last year hitting just above 2/3rd of his attempts at the line. He became one of the better free throw shooters in the conference this season which is unique for a player who rarely takes a shot more than 5 feet from the basket. Noah shot 82.7% in conference play and was 28/29 in the last 4 games to end the year.

Sam Timmins takes a lot of criticism from fans but there’s no doubt that he got better this year even if he didn’t improve as much as some would like. There was a clear tail off in conference play but he became a legitimate shot blocker when deployed in the zone. His block percentage went from 4.1% to 5.8% which was just outside the top-100 nationally. Sam’s offensive rating was still below average but it went from 85.7 in year one to 98.7 in year two. That was due to a 6.5% rise in field goal percentage, a 21% increase in free throw percentage, and a 4% drop in turnover rate.

3. This team welcomes back almost everyone next year

Dan Kingma was the only senior on this team. Devenir Duruisseau already left and it seems clear that at least one if not two players still need to transfer. Bitumba Baruti redshirted and so he seems an obvious candidate while the second would likely be either Carlos Johnson or Michael Carter III who saw their playing time shrink to nearly 0 by the end of the year. If that holds true it means Washington will return everyone who played at least 12% of the team’s minutes (~5 mpg).

The Huskies returned 64.2% of their minutes from last season to this one which was 55th in the country. Next year that number will be closer to 97%. They’ll almost certainly end up in the top-5 of minutes continuity. Here’s every major conference team to end up in the top-20 in that category this year. Wichita State (tourney), USC (bubble-in), Penn State (bubble-out), Providence (bubble-in), Seton Hall (tourney), and Purdue (tourney). The worst of those teams is Penn State and that team only has two consensus top-100 players on their roster. Teams this talented that bring back this many of their top guys almost never miss the tournament barring significant injuries etc.

Jaylen Nowell averaged 16 points per game as a freshman and every indication is that he’ll be returning for his sophomore season since he appears on literally 0 NBA mock drafts. I looked earlier in the season and players that score as much as he did almost never come back to school. He has a chance to be a transcendent scorer at the college level over the next few years along the lines of Allonzo Trier at Arizona.

Most of the players on this team will likely improve over the off-season. And even if they don’t the Huskies have the potential to add impact players in their recruiting class. Elijah Hardy will be the closest thing to a true point guard on the roster and even if he’s not ready to be a starter he’ll give the team a legitimate bench presence behind David Crisp. Jamal Bey took a massive leap this year and could easily steal minutes on the wing if Dominic Green or Nahziah Carter regress. And a pair of top-100 big men in Bryan Penn-Johnson and J’Raan Brooks are still considering the Dawgs to add more depth on the interior and take minutes away from Sam Timmins.

And then there’s the return of the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Mike Hopkins. This team may not win a Final Four next year but this team absolutely should be expected to end Washington’s NCAA tournament drought with a good chance at a push to the Sweet 16.

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