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UW Hoops Preview: The Need for Speed

The Huskies are looking to play fast this season to help jumpstart the offense and the defense

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-2024 Washington Huskies Basketball team apparently will have the Need…. for Speed this upcoming season.

That has been the word on the streets all summer and was in full display in the 103-58 victory over Division II Saint Mary’s this past Sunday. Of course, Exhibition games should be taken with a grain of salt and the Huskies had a similar result last year in an exhibition game versus Alaska Fairbanks but there was an apparent difference in playing style this past Sunday.

The Huskies brought in some new weapons this offseason and have made some surprising schematic changes to how they want to play this season and it’s apparent that the Huskies want to play fast this year.

Wheelerin’ and Dealin’

A good place to start is the addition of 5’8 Point Guard Sahvir Wheeler who may bring back some memories of another former 5’8 Huskies guard, Isaiah Thomas, speeding up the court with the ball in his hands. Wheeler is a blur in the open court and loves to push the ball as fast as possible to look for teammates on the run or go coast-to-coast on his own for a bucket.

Sahvir Wheeler has over 650 career assists during his time at Kentucky (2021-2023) and Georgia (2019-2020) and has averaged 6.1 assists per game throughout his career. Last season at Kentucky saw his assists drop to 5.4 but Kentucky also substantially slowed their tempo to #256 in the country last year. Wheeler’s best Assist per game season was his Sophomore year at Georgia (7.4) which saw Georgia rate as #13 in tempo.

Coincidently, the Huskies have not had a Point Guard average more than 6 assists per game since Isaiah Thomas in the 2010-2011 season (6.1 apg) as well as Wheeler’s current assistant Coach in Will Conroy in the 2004-2005 season who holds the current Huskies single season record at 6.4 apg. If all goes to plan, Sahvir Wheeler could challenge to etch his name in the Washington Records Book this season.

The Huskies also have Rutgers Transfer Paul Mulcahy and Lamar Transfer Nate Calmese to join Koren Johnson and Sahvir Wheeler in the Washington Backcourt to help push the tempo. They will be looking for Shooting Forwards 6’8 Moses Wood and 6’5 Anthony Holland, as well as freshman sensation 6’4 Wesley Yates who can score inside and outside.

Returning Sophomore Koren Johnson showed flashes of his speed by disrupting passing lanes and turning those into transition baskets. One of the quicker players on the team, Johnson will bring a lot of energy off the bench and will be able to pair up nicely with Wheeler and Mulcahy on the court or help run the point himself if needed.

Tempo Tempo Tempo

The 2022-2023 Huskies were not necessarily a slow team as they were rated #75 in Kenpom tempo and were also technically the 2nd highest tempo team in the Pac-12 last season, behind only Arizona (#13 overall). There was of course a big gap between Arizona and Washington but the Huskies were at their best offensively with Keyon Menifield and Koren Johnson pushing the ball up court and Keion Brooks, Braxton Meah and Franck Kepnang running the floor. Adversely, the Huskies struggled mightily in the half court when teams slowed the Huskies down.

If Sunday’s game vs. Saint Martins was any indication, the Huskies will be looking to run as soon as there is a rebound, steal or even after a made basket. There were several possessions where the Huskies scored in less than 8 seconds, even after a made basket by Saint Martin’s. Sahvir Wheeler, Paul Mulcahy, Koren Johnson and Nate Calmese each took their turns in pushing the ball up as fast as possible. Even 6’8 Forward Moses Wood pushed the ball up court immediately after a defensive rebound.

Hard to see in the following highlight but this dish from Paul Mulcahy to Wilhelm Breidenbach was 6 seconds after a Saint Martin’s basket on the other end.

It would not be surprising at all if the Huskies end up as a top 25 team in Tempo this upcoming season as long as the Huskies can play under control. This would bring a tear to they eyes of Huskies Fans who grew up watching the early Lorenzo Romar teams that had Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas pushing the ball up the court.

Lorenzo Romar had a string of 7 out of 9 teams that had a Top 25 Tempo and coincidently made the NCAA Tournament in 6 of those seasons. The one team that didn’t make the tourney was the 2012 team that was left off the Bubble after winning the Pac-12 Regular Season Championship. So overall, 7 of Lorenzo Romar’s teams were NCAA Tournament caliber teams and were top 25 in tempo. The teams outside the Top 25 in Tempo were not NCAA tournament teams.

Also coincidently, the post-2012 Romar teams drastically slowed down the tempo with only one team that finished in the Top 25 in Tempo, which was the Dejounte Murray and Andrew Andrews squad that also narrowly missed the NCAA tournament and made the NIT as a 3 seed.

If there is a potential theme in recent Washington Huskies Basketball History…. Speed Kills.

To Zone or Not to Zone

The other big ingredient for a faster tempo this season is the rumored switch from the 2-3 Syracuse zone to a more active man-to-man defense that will focus on trapping ball screens to create turnovers and to help better rebound on the defensive side.

It should come as no surprise that Mike Hopkins coached teams have struggled mightily in rebounding the basketball. For one, It is very difficult to rebound when you are defending space in the zone and too often Huskies fans have seen opposing teams crash the offensive glass over and over again. During Mike Hopkins Tenure, the Huskies have never placed in the top 300 for defensive rebounding and have been sitting in the 350+ range the past few seasons. Even the Isaiah Stewart led team was #320 in the nation, which was Mike Hopkins best rated defensive rebounding team.

Moving to a man-to-man focused defense, the Huskies should be able to put more bodies on opponents, which should lead to more rebounds going the other direction. The Huskies also have brought in players that have had success rebounding the basketball including 6 players that have averaged 5 or more rebounds per game. Previous Mike Hopkins teams saw a lot of tall and lean athletes that could create steals or block shots but often were pushed around.

The biggest question on defense will be if Braxton Meah and Franck Kepnang can still defend the hoop or if they will be pulled out to the perimeter on defense in the man-to-man. If they can still defend the paint without giving up too much on the perimeter, the Huskies should be able to get out and run quickly and often.

Up Next

The Huskies face their first test of the season this Monday, November 6th as the Bellarmine Knights come into town. Bellarmine like to play at a snail like pace and does not set a lot of ball screens so it will be a big contrast of styles in the Opener. The Huskies will be looking to avoid any potential disaster early on and Tempo will be a key to the game for both teams.