It’s finally almost here. Tomorrow night is the start of a Washington Huskies basketball season which will look dramatically different from last year as far as the players on the court but hopefully not with regards to the results. The Dawgs lost 5 of their top 6 scorers from a season ago to graduation or the NBA Draft and instead will be relying on a mix of returning talent that has been waiting in the wings and incredibly talented true freshmen.
If you have been distracted by football season and are only now trying to cram for the first game of the year, don’t worry we have you covered. Read on as our writers answer questions about our expectations for the upcoming season.
Washington has a pair of top-ten ranked true freshmen coming in plus a highly regarded PG transfer and a junior who appears ready to take a leap with more opportunity. Who is your preseason pick for team MVP in 2019-20?
Max Vrooman: It’s difficult to go with anyone other than Isaiah Stewart. The 5-star true freshman big man has no weaknesses to his game and should be a dominant presence in the Pac-12 from the opening tip. Beyond that he’s also a magnetic personality and has instantly become a team leader despite not yet playing an official game. He has the potential to lead the team in points, rebounds, and blocks and if he comes close to doing that then he gets the nod.
Andrew Berg: I agree with Max on this one. Stewart’s game seems tailor-made for serious collegiate success. At his size, he will probably need to develop more range or a face-up game to become a great player at the next level. At college, though, he has the size, strength, and athleticism to bully smaller players. Add that to offensive moves and coordination that belie his youth and he looks like a contender for All-American status.
Rob Foxcurran: Not to be lame and repeat what Max and Andrew said, but Stewart has to be the pick here. His presence on the court will demand attention from everyone. Defenses will need to key in on him, drawing double teams and opening up opportunities for his teammates. He should command the paint on both ends of the court as his size and physical abilities create a mismatch for the vast majority of collegiate teams. Of least importance, fans’ eyes and the media will be drawn to him, garnering lots of local and national attention.
Chris Landon: My head tells me that Stewart explodes on the scene in much the same way Jaylen Nowell did in Hop’s debut season. That said, I don’t think anybody really believes that this team is going to be some kind of offensive juggernaut in the paint. I think that this program has been so starved for outstanding PG play that I might place a hedge bet on Quade Green. A multi-faceted QB at the point who can set the offense, protect the ball and drive efficiency could quickly become an MVP kind of player given what this team needs.
None of the underclassmen on the roster played more than 15% of the team’s minutes last year. Which of the returning youngsters are you most excited to watch this season (Hardy, Bey, Roberts, BPJ)?
Max Vrooman: I was incredibly impressed by the play of Nate Roberts during the exhibition games in Italy. He just looks like a player who will average close to a double double by the time he’s a junior. Roberts may not get a ton of minutes in a crowded frontcourt with Timmins and BPJ also fighting for minutes off the bench. But I predict he’ll put up fantastic efficiency numbers and we’ll see plenty of arguments in the comments and on twitter vouching for him to see more of the court.
Andrew Berg: If you asked me a week ago, I would have felt compelled to say Hardy because he looked like the only true point guard eligible to play before the new year. With news that Green’s waiver to play immediately received NCAA approval, I will pivot to Bey, who provides some needed depth on the wing. Even if Naz Carter’s improved shooting holds up through the year, the Huskies could still use another three-point marksman. Bey has the form and the pedigree to be that sort of player this year, and to grow into something more down the road. With his size, he also has the promise of a major defensive asset. He will probably start the season as a valued sixth-man with a more dynamic game than Dominic Green. I think he offers more than that, as well- he can be an important cog in any smaller lineups and a developmental piece as one of the lead scorers on the team in a year or two.
Rob Foxcurran: I’ll have to echo what Andrew said, as I think Jamal Bey has the most to contribute to the team this season. While big men Nate Roberts and BPJ are exciting young players, if we’re just talking about this season, they’ll likely take backseat roles to Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, as well as veterans Hameir Wright and Sam Timmins. Bey provides a skill set that is suddenly less abundant on this team (than in recent years past), which is someone who can handle the ball while being a legitimate perimeter scoring threat. At 6’6”, he also has the size to contribute defensively and will be rotated in early and often throughout the season.
Chris Landon: (While pretending that you didn’t specify “underclassmen” in your question) I’m kind of in the Hameir Wright camp in terms of my curiosity about returners. Though he last season demonstrated some bankable assets with his versatility and ability to defend multiple positions, he didn’t really take a step forward in his development as a sophomore. If his offensive game comes around a little and if he takes a big step into the Thybulle defensive terror role, he could be a breakout among the returners. Or not.
With all-world defensive talent Matisse Thybulle at the helm the Huskies ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency last year. This season they’re younger and less experienced but undoubtedly longer and more athletic. Will the defense take a leap forward or a step back?
Max Vrooman: Mike Hopkins inherited a team that was fundamentally ill suited to run his zone defense outside of Thybulle’s presence and yet improved them from 224 to 73 to 18 in adjusted defensive efficiency. I’m going to bet on a step back just because this team needs time to gel but if everyone stays healthy I expect this team to have games where it’s nearly impossible to score on them. Consistency will be the biggest problem so I’ll say a final total around 30 but top-15 over the last month of the season.
Andrew Berg: I would bet on a statistical step back, but one that’s small enough that it won’t be all that noticeable to the naked eye. Although Thybulle was a generational defensive force, the rest of the departing players were relative liabilities at that end of the court. Noah Dickerson played reasonably well positionally, but didn’t have the size or explosiveness to be a great defender against high-level opponents. Green lacked the lateral quickness and David Crisp was simply too small to add value on that end. If you replace those three with Stewart, McDaniels, and Quade Green, you will probably have some systemic growing pains, but you will also have players better physically suited for the system.
Rob Foxcurran: The starting lineup will feature three players in their first year in Hopkins’ system, as well as a rotation that’ll likely include several second year players. While the current roster is longer and therefore more physically suited to successfully run the zone, a step back can be expected due to the youth and inexperience of the lineup. However, given the length and general talent level of this team, I don’t think there’ll be dramatic fall off from last year.
Chris Landon: I don’t see the defense taking a step back. There is so much more length and athleticism on this squad with McDaniels, BPJ, Roberts and Wright that it almost seems impossible for this team not to get better ... especially given that guys like Nowell, Dominic and Noah were just kind of ok at best. It’ll be interesting if the cohesiveness of the team D is as strong as it was a year ago, but the raw talent definitely brings with it a higher defensive ceiling.
The Huskies have seen steady improvement in their first 2 seasons under Mike Hopkins. What would need to happen in year 3 for you to declare this season a success and what would it take to be a failure?
Max Vrooman: Making it to the tournament in back to back seasons with a completely new team is probably enough to call the season a success but I’m going to say a Sweet 16 appearance. Player availability always makes a difference but not getting back to the big dance would be a failure provided they don’t lose a starter or two for a significant length of time. There have been too many wasted seasons in the last decade with one and done talent on the Washington roster. Hop needs to show it won’t be more of the same under his administration.
Andrew Berg: For me, there is a little bit of grey area between “success” and “failure” for this squad. Missing the tournament would be a failure. Making it to the Sweet Sixteen would be a success. Anything in between- basically, a first weekend tourney exit- would be acceptable, but not great in my book. Conference success matters, too. A regular season or tournament Pac-12 Title would make me more willing to forgive a first-round tourney loss. Win the Pac-12 tourney and make it to the Sweet Sixteen? Now THAT would be a big step forward for the whole program.
Rob Foxcurran: This team’s ceiling could be rather high, but echoing Max and Andrew, I think a Sweet Sixteen appearance would have to be considered a success. Relative to the talent level on this team, including two potential one and done lottery picks, as well as only very recently breaking a dry spell of making the tournament, the Sweet Sixteen would be a significant step in the right direction for this program. Aside from the ever present potential of getting hit with the injury bug, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t make the NCAA tournament. In addition to that, winning the conference regular season title, or winning the Pac-12 tournament should also be within this team’s ability, and falling well shy of either of those would have to be considered a disappointment.
Chris Landon: While I’ve no doubt that this team will be better defensively, I feel like there are more than enough reasons to think that there will be plenty of nights where the offense still won’t put up enough points to win a well-defended game. The media picked UW to finish 3rd which feels in the ballpark if you assume what two top 10ish freshmen usually bring to the table. The Huskies should make the tournament as a third place finisher which would be a plus even if your expectations for stringing together a couple of Madness wins is a bit muted. Of course, the presence of a couple of one and done talents would make anything short of a tournament run a disappointment. There isn’t much gray area there.
What is your prediction for where the Huskies finish in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournament status?
Max Vrooman: Teams with multiple top-10 freshmen almost always make the NCAA tournament and generally do so as a #5 or better seed. However, those teams are also usually coached by hall of fame coaches and have Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas written on the jersey. I expect this team to have some growing pains in the first few months that prevent them from quite reaching their ceiling. Washington finishes 3rd in the Pac-12 behind Colorado and Oregon and get into the tournament as a #7 seed.
Andrew Berg: Questions like this one have so many variables- player availability, opponent performance, on-court chemistry, and the like. If we set all those to equal, I will put UW 2nd in the Pac-12 behind Oregon with a real chance to beat them if a few breaks go the Huskies’ way. With the improvement of the conference as a whole, that should leave UW around the top 25 at the end of the regular season, which should translate into a seed in the 5-7 range.
Rob Foxcurran: A big variable for this team will be the quality of guard play. Green is talented, but it often takes time to develop chemistry with new teammates. Also, the majority of guards left on the roster are young and relatively unproven. However, assuming there are some early bumps in the season as the team gels, I don’t think it’s a long shot for this team to be competing with Oregon for the conference title while securing an end of season top 25 ranking. Assuming that happens, a 4-7 seed range in the tournament would seem appropriate.
Chris Landon: Maybe they’ll put it together in a surprising but pleasant way. Like a sangria. But until then, I just don’t see where consistent scoring comes from for this team. This is especially true if Stewart takes time to adjust to the next level of competition and / or if Naz can’t become Terrence Ross part II. Could guys like Bey or Green surprise? Sure. But it’s hard to project that with data on hand. As such, I don’t see a run at the PAC 12 title as “likely”. Their ceiling is probably higher than most, but a 4th or 5th place finish and a “last four in” situation seems like where the top of the bell curve in my Monte Carlo analyses touches.