What’s Going On With UW Basketball?

The Washington Husky basketball team started last season 12-0, and while no one thought they were going remain undefeated for the season, a return to the NCAA tournament seemed likely.  Instead, they went 4-15 to finish their worst season in years. In the process, they lost their best player and pro prospect, C Robert Upshaw, when he was kicked off the team for an undisclosed rules violation. The horrid second half intensified the negative buzz starting to surround Lorenzo Romar’s tenure as head coach.

The offseason hasn’t been any less tumultuous. Remember all those players who made up that terrible team last season? They’re pretty much all gone. Mike Anderson and Shawn Kemp Jr. graduated. Gilles Dierickx and Darin Johnson moved on in transfers that weren’t too surprising. Nigel Williams-Goss’ and Jernard Jarreau’s transfers were more surprising. Even assistant coach TJ Otzelberger quit to go back to Iowa State. All that was left was Andrew Andrews, Donaven Dorsey and Quevyn Winters. In case you can’t count, that’s not even a starting line-up. It’s not even a very good three-on-three group.

The good news is this is not all bad news. While I doubt Romar was dying to lose Williams-Goss or Jarreau, it’s pretty clear he was aiming to gut this roster. The program had grown less talented, and it had simultaneously morphed away from the athletic, pressuring squads of Romar’s best years at UW.

Even in the midst of the terrible second half of the season, Romar was putting together what looks like his best recruiting class. In its original form, the class had six recruits, a group among the top three in the Pac-12 and the best in the country. It included three elite local kids, an elite California power forward, and a junior college big man to play immediately. That group of six had fans extremely excited and was a solid foundation for a rebuild. And then it kept getting better.

With all of the transfers, Romar found himself with plenty of roster space that he could, and eventually needed to, fill. First, there was an SEC big man transfer, Matthew Atewe, young with upside. He’ll likely have to sit out this year, but is petitioning for immediate eligibility. Whenever he plays, he should be an athletic big man, maybe not a star but the type of body UW has had in short supply of late. Next came local wing Dominic Green, who had been committed to Arizona State until they changed coaches and he asked to be released.

The real icing to this cake came last week with two separate announcements. The first was long-rumored but surely brought a smile to every fan’s face: former point guard Will Conroy had been hired as an assistant coach. To many, Conroy represents everything this program used to be but has lost. He’s a local boy who worked himself from a walk-on to the fringes of the NBA. He played tough defense, team basketball, and directed many of those great teams with Nate, Brandon and everyone else. He seems to be viewed as the all-time captain of Husky basketball  and brings tremendous respect and connections to the local Seattle basketball scene. There’s been a feeling amongst fans that UW’s coaching staff has gotten too nice, has lost its edge since Cameron Dollar left, and whether that’s true or not, Will Conroy brings plenty of edge.

The second piece of news came with the (likely) final piece of the recruiting class. Center Noah Dickerson had picked Florida over UW earlier, but when Billy Donovan left for an NBA job, Dickerson asked to be released as well. He visited UW last week and signed scholarship paperwork before he left to make himself a Husky. He brings size and a fairly polished low-post game. Another big man was the only thing the class was really missing, and Dickerson is a better player than anyone expected they would be able to find to fill that hole. His signing gives this class five of the top 100 incoming players in the country (according to Scout.com), with the 102nd ranked player thrown in for good measure. UW has never seen a class that is this deep and this good, and given the amount of roster turnover it took to get there, it likely never will again. Recruiting classes aren’t usually this big, and when they are, they tend to have a lot of filler.

So what does all that mean for the coming season? It’s hard to say, really. A return to the NCAA tournament would be tough but not impossible, or even unlikely. They should improve as the season goes, and if they can keep this group together for another year (likely, as there aren’t any real obvious one-and done candidates), the next year could be truly special. Whatever the season’s outcome, this group should bring a return to fun, high-paced, intense basketball. This group is extremely long and athletic, and once they get a little bit of experience under the drawstrings of their shorts, they should bring the program back to its glory days of pressuring defense and high-flying fast breaks. The 2015-’16 Huskies might not be recognizable, but that’s be a good thing after the last few seasons.

The Newcomers, in the order they committed:

David Crisp is a 5’11” lefty point guard from Rainier Beach who played last year back east at a prep school. He’s probably my favorite player in the class.  He can shoot and get to the basket, and seems like a tough leader on the floor. He should play a lot right away and could be the primary point guard as a sophomore.

Marquese Criss is the California power forward. He’s a light 6’8” and is more of a stretch 4 than a power guy down low. He’s also one of the most highly touted and athletic big men the Huskies have added in years. It’s unclear to me what his game will look like at the next level, but given the lack of front court depth and his natural talent, Criss is likely to play and possibly start a lot, immediately.

Dejounte Murray is the jewel of the class. Crisp’s former teammate at Rainier Beach, Murray can play either guard spot at 6’5”. He’s smooth and ultra-athletic, with a pretty shot and a talent for getting to the rim. Murray is a joy to watch and should add some of the playmaking ability last year’s squad so lacked. He’s the most likely guy from this class to have a short UW career before heading to the NBA. We’ll just hope he’s that good but decides to stick around anyway.

Matisse Thybulle is another local guy from Eastside Catholic. He’s a 6’6” wing, another long guy with great athleticism. He’s been known as a potentially elite defender in the Bobby Jones, Justin Holiday mold, but he also had a great senior season offensively. He gets overshadowed a bit by Murray and Criss, but he could be a star in a couple of years.

Devenir Duruisseau is a more traditional big man, but also more of a project. The lack of depth may not allow it, but he could be a candidate to redshirt. He has good tools to work with, though and could turn into a bruiser underneath, eventually.

Malik Dime is a junior college post and probably the most likely of the class to start immediately, mostly due to a lack of better options. Word is his defensive skills are more polished than his offensive game, but both are solid. He should be able to protect the rim and add some muscle underneath. JuCo guys can be a bit hit and miss in their first year, so we’ll hope Dime is a hit, because he is sorely needed.

Matthew Atewe, the transfer from Auburn, is another athletic big man. He didn’t do a lot as a freshman, and then was injured last year, before deciding to transfer largely as the result of a coaching change. Word is he’s appealing to play this year, but that seems unlikely. He should provide good depth, and maybe more, once he gets on the court.

Dominic Green, the late addition from Renton, is another 6’6” wing. He’s known as a shooter, but is a little under-the-radar it seems, despite being a top 100 player. He reminds me of a smaller Donaven Dorsey, but that could be way off base. He’s the only local guy in the class I haven’t seen in person, unfortunately.

Noah Dickerson is a slightly undersized center who reportedly has a great interior offensive game and is solid offensively. He’s 6’8”, so he’s far from tiny, and his lack of height could hopefully keep him in school longer, if he is in fact as good as hoped. I expect him to play a ton right away, possibly starting beside Dime or Criss. Getting him this late in the process was a steal for UW.

-Matthew

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