College Basketball: What's Wrong With the Washington Huskies?
ESPN's 30 for 30 series of documentaries have become one of my favorite indulgences because they go beyond the story and deliver real insight into what was going on in the minds of those involved in sports culture and history.
The tagline, "What if I told you..." has become one of the biggest lead-ins and catch phrases in popular sports culture today.
With that in mind, what if I told you that there was a college basketball team in the Pacific Northwest that has a 6'4" freshman point guard who is projected to be the overall first pick in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft, yet finds itself 8-9 (1-4 in the Pac-12), has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, and has produced five first-round draft picks in that timeframe?
You'd certainly want to know more on why a college team that recruits so much talent can't seem to generate W's on the court.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Washington Huskies men's basketball team, coached by Lorenzo Romar, who is in his 15th season at the helm.
The Talent's There This Year
For those of you just getting into the college basketball season, the aforementioned point guard is Markelle Fultz who came to the Huskies as the third overall point guard and prized recruit out of famed Dematha High School in Maryland.
Offensively, he's got great handle, floor vision, and acceleration and shoots the ball very well (including over 40% from three-point land). His 22.2 points per game are most in the country for a player in a "power conference," and to boot, he averages 5.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
Fultz is joined by two other players who average double digits in David Crisp (13.9 points per game) and Noah Dickerson (11.2 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game).
The Talent's Been There Recently, Too
Since the 2011 tournament team, which lost to North Carolina, in the round of 32, the Huskies have had five players drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, including Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray, Terrence Ross, and Tony Wroten.
The best outcome for any of those teams was a loss in the NIT Final Four to Minnesota, in 2012 for a 24-11 Huskies squad.
And that's not enough to deter the school from bringing in more top recruits.
There's a Lot More Talent Coming Next Year
In spite of Romar and the Huskies not making the NCAA Tournament for five years, the coach continues to recruit at a very high level and get players to the NBA.
This certainly won't change next year, behind Scout.com's sixth-ranked recruiting class, led by number five overall recruit 6'8" power forward Michael Porter Jr. For 2018, the Huskies already have a verbal commit from Porter's younger brother, Jontay as well.
The recruiting of both and the fact that former Huskie and Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy was hired to coach the Porter brothers in their first year living in Seattle has been fairly controversial.
However, it doesn't change the fact that Romar is bringing in top talent and, due to that, likely has job security in spite of poor results.
So, What's Missing?
According to our advanced metrics, the numbers start to tell the story of what has happened over recent years.
Our nERD metric shows how many points a team would win by over an average opponent on a neutral court, and the offensive and defensive numbers are percentile ranks. If a team had an offensive rating in the 99th percentile, that would mean that only 1% of other teams in the country would be more proficient offensively.
How has Washington looked in recent seasons?
|2015-16||0.618||0.565||0.999||0.76||8.12||19-15||NIT 2nd Rd|
|2012-13||0.638||0.485||0.445||0.057||5.95||18-16||NIT 1st Rd|
|2011-12||0.849||0.673||0.821||0.342||8.23||24-11||NIT Final 4|
|2010-11||0.957||0.69||0.814||0.996||15.58||24-11||NCAA 2nd Rd|
This is where the story starts to unravel, especially when you compare the NCAA Tournament team that included NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas to the current version of the Huskies. The tournament team and the 24-11 NIT Final Four team the season after were very potent offensively, and the current version of the team with Fultz stacks up in that regard with an offensive rating in the 87th percentile and a consistency that rivals the NCAA Tournament squad.
However, that's where the similarities end. The two 24-11 teams had above average defenses and nERD scores indicative of good teams that would beat an average team handily on a neutral court (15.58 nERD in Thomas' final year).
For the past five years, the Huskies have become one of the worst teams in college basketball defensively. This year, the Huskies are 267th overall defensively per our metrics, grading out in the 23rd percentile. The current version of the Huskies own a nERD of 3.18, meaning that the Huskies aren't a given to beat any opponent on a neutral court.
When you watch the Huskies play, for as gifted as Fultz is offensively (2.5 offensive win shares puts him just outside of College Basketball Reference's top 20), their defensive shortcomings become incredibly apparent, as the team doesn't communicate, play with discipline, or contest open shots. The team allows points in bunches (per College Basketball Reference, their 78.2 points per game allowed ranks 299th nationally), and opponents rain threes to the tune of 39.1% against the Huskies (331st nationally).
So when a team like undefeated Gonzaga and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss shoots 65% from the floor in the first half and 53.8% for the game (50% from three) and goes to the free-throw line 28 times, it results in huge blowout losses for the Huskies.
They were down 47-22 in the first half and ended up losing 98-71 in spite of Fultz having 25 points and 10 rebounds (only 1 assist) on 26 shots.
The problem is that, while the norm for almost every team is to lose to undefeated Gonzaga, the Huskies are losing to any opponent that plays with heart and can go on a run when Washington's shooting and playmaking dry up.
For instance, in their last game a 76-69 loss at Stanford, the Huskies scored only seven points in the last 10 minutes of the first half, taking a game that they trailed 19-17 and going into halftime down 43-24. Following the half, they made a valiant comeback effort to tie the game at 63 all with 3:30 left, only then to get outscored 13-6 down the stretch.
Same storyline as usual: Fultz was brilliant scoring 34 points with 7 rebounds in another loss for his team.
What's the Draw to Top Recruits, Then?
So why would a player like Fultz choose a one-and-done with the Huskies instead of joining a team like Kentucky and get a chance to play in the Big Dance? Romar's long-standing friendship with Michael Porter Sr. aside, Romar has gotten players to the NBA in his system, namely on offensive playmaking and fast-paced basketball.
The faster pace results in a playground-like game script when the Huskies are behind, which tends to fill the stat sheets and enhance those star players' draft status. As long as Romar maintains status quo and keeps his job, top recruits will continue to flock to Seattle, regardless of how few NCAA Tournament appearances the Huskies make.
The casualties are the fans who can only wonder what these Huskies teams would be if Romar and his staff could get his team coached up defensively. Maybe one day we'll get a 30 for 30 on Washington Huskies basketball and find out if there are behind-the-scenes reasons why the Huskies can't seem to get any defensive mojo going.
Until then, enjoy the highlights of talented players and laugh at the middle-school defense being played.