SEATTLE — Perris Blackwell sat at a table, surrounded by a pack of reporters and television cameras, answering questions for the first time as an eligible member of the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team.
This was in early October, shortly after the Huskies began practicing for the upcoming season, which begins at 7 p.m. Sunday against Seattle University at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Blackwell, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound fifth-year senior force beneath the basket, is the most important addition to UW’s roster. But he has been in the program a year, sitting last season per NCAA rules — but still practicing — after transferring from the University of San Francisco.
He watched from the sideline. He saw what the Huskies — owners by season’s end of a disappointing 18-16 record and a first-round NIT exit — were missing.
“I felt that we were missing that consistent, dominating post presence,” Blackwell said then, “and just being able … so it wasn’t all just coming from the outside and the guards.”
That has been the knock on Lorenzo Romar’s teams in recent years, and it’s something the 12th-year coach feverishly has worked to remedy.
The addition of Blackwell was a major step in the right direction.
The development of some of UW’s younger frontcourt players has Romar thinking this team could be one of his most balanced, even if it isn’t terribly experienced.
“We’ve never been really a balanced team in terms of inside and outside,” Romar said. “Now this gives us a little bit more balance on the perimeter as well as in the paint. That’s what you want. That’s what we’ve been recruiting toward and looking forward to having.”
Romar identified Jernard Jarreau, a thin, 6-10 redshirt sophomore from New Orleans, as perhaps UW’s most improved player from a year ago. Jarreau averaged 12.7 minutes in 31 games last season, but he started UW’s exhibition game against Central Washington on Wednesday and had 17 points and nine rebounds.
Behind Blackwell and Jarreau are 7-footer Gilles Dierickx and 6-9 junior Shawn Kemp Jr.
Desmond Simmons, a 6-7 defensive specialist, will be out until at least mid-December after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week. When he returns, he’ll be a key cog in one of the deepest frontcourts Romar has ever had.
There is depth, too, at guard, though not as much experience. Fifth-year senior C.J. Wilcox, the 3-point shooting ace, is an obvious exception. Wilcox, who led the team in scoring with 16.8 points per game last season, played through a foot injury before having surgery in the offseason. He says he feels 100 percent healthy for the first time since last November.
The Huskies have a familiar face and a new, promising one running the offense. Andrew Andrews, a third-year sophomore, figures to play significant minutes at guard. Four-star freshman Nigel Williams-Goss, a McDonald’s All-American, will be a fixture in the starting lineup from the get-go.
Williams-Goss is a calm, heady point guard with a knack for leadership, Romar said, and has a command of the team that suggests he’s more mature than a freshman.
“When my other teammates see something on the floor, they speak up, and I do the same,” said Williams-Goss, who scored 16 points in Wednesday night’s exhibition. “I think that’s the great thing about our team. We have a real vocal team this year, and everyone is communicating with each other. And we’re all receptive and willing to hear what others have to say.”
The rest of UW’s backcourt players are a bit more unknown. The Huskies added two other freshmen guards — 6-5, 200-pound Darin Johnson and 6-foot, 175-pound Jahmel Taylor — and junior-college transfer Mike Anderson. Hikeem Stewart, a little-used junior from Seattle, also returns.
Defensive improvement is an emphasis, Romar said. He’s eager to see if this group meshes better than last season’s team, which also struggled at times to adjust to a new high-post offense.
The Huskies still will run offense through the high post, though Romar wants them to return to an up-tempo, open-floor approach.
But to fuel that attitude, the Huskies must defend well enough to force turnovers, Romar said. They finished last in the Pac-12 Conference in field-goal percentage defense a season ago, perhaps one of the reasons they were picked by media to finish eighth in the conference standings this season.
They also must find a way to replace the rebounding efforts of graduated 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye.
“Can we carry over what we’ve been seeing in practice to games immediately, or will it take awhile?” Romar said. “Those will probably be the things I’m looking for.
“I like our pieces. I like what we have to work with. I like the fact that we have depth. I really like that. Even with Desmond out, I still believe we have depth. I like the fact that we share the ball the way that we do, and probably 95 percent of the time on the floor, there are five players that can make a play for themselves or others.”
5 KEYS TO SUCCESS FOR WASHINGTON
1. Play better defense
Washington allowed opponents to shoot 43.3 percent from the field last season, a number that ranked worst in the Pac-12 Conference. For that reason, the Huskies weren’t able to get into the kind of open-court game they prefer. With a bigger frontcourt but less experienced backcourt, how quickly the Huskies mesh defensively will be key. So, too, will their ability to adapt to new anti-hand-checking rules. Coach Lorenzo Romar’s best defenses always play physical.
2. Find a third scorer
C.J. Wilcox and Perris Blackwell will get their points. But who will emerge as the third scoring option behind the two fifth-year seniors? Andrew Andrews showed flashes of brilliance in 2012-13, his first season on the floor, but he must improve his jump shot to mature into a true scoring threat. Jernard Jarreau has the skills, but it’s not yet known if he has improved his strength enough to be a factor in the post. Freshman guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Darin Johnson could fit the bill, too.
3. Run the floor
The Huskies still will use the high-post offense that was installed last season, but Romar made it clear he wants his team to be more aggressive in attacking the basket. They were too stagnant at times last season, the coach said, and to succeed this season, the Huskies must push the tempo and play fast, the way Romar’s best teams always have.
4. Don’t get left in the dust early
The Huskies begin the season with three relative gimmes — Seattle University, UC Irvine and Eastern Washington — before facing Indiana at Madison Square Garden, then Connecticut or Boston College the next day. They also travel to San Diego State and Tulane, and will play host to UConn on Dec. 22. UW can’t afford to drop more than two of those — three at the most — before a rigorous Pac-12 schedule begins.
5. Replace Aziz N’Diaye
The 7-footer didn’t have the softest hands — or much of a shooting touch — but what N’Diaye lacked in offensive ability, he at least partially compensated for in rebounding and defensive acumen. He was a big reason why the Huskies finished last season with a plus-4 rebounding margin, good for third in the Pac-12. Can Blackwell, Jarreau, Shawn Kemp Jr. and Co. pick up the slack? A LOOK AT THE HUSKIES’ ROSTER
No. 5 Nigel Williams-Goss, Fr., G, 6-3, 185
High school: Findlay Prep (Nev.)
Hometown: Happy Valley, Ore.
2012-13 (at Findlay): Averaged more than 18 ppg and 7 apg for team that finished 35-1.
Notable: Played in McDonald’s All-America game and the Jordan Brand Classic, and was member of USA team that won gold medal at FIBA U19 World Championships.
No. 12 Andrew Andrews, So., G, 6-2, 195
High school: Benson Tech
2012-13 stats: 7.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 36.3 fg%, 73.3 ft%
Notable: Aggressive going to rim; must improve 27.0 percent 3-point shooting.
No. 23 C.J. Wilcox, Sr., G, 6-5, 195
High school: Pleasant Grove
Hometown: Pleasant Grove, Utah
2012-13 stats: 16.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 41.9 fg%, 81.6 ft%
Notable: Tested NBA draft waters but chose to return for final season.
No. 33 Jernard Jarreau, So., F, 6-10, 220
High school: McDonogh 35 Senior
Hometown: New Orleans
2012-13 stats: 3.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.3 apg, 40.2 fg%, 75.7 ft%
Notable: Will be relied upon more this season for interior scoring and rebounding.
No. 2 Perris Blackwell, Sr., F, 6-9, 275
High school: Etiwanda (played three seasons at University of San Francisco)
Hometown: Etiwanda, Calif.
2011-12 stats (with USF): 12.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 apg, 57.5 fg%, 56.4 ft%
Notable: Skilled post player but must shoot free throws well to maximize effectiveness.
No. 11 Mike Anderson, Jr., G, 6-4, 195
High school: Weaver (played two seasons at Moberly Area Community College)
Hometown: Hartford, Conn.
2012-13 (at Moberly): 17.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.5 apg, 52.8 fg%, 82.7 ft%
Notable: Might be Huskies’ best 3-point shooter behind Wilcox.
No. 40 Shawn Kemp Jr., Jr., F, 6-9, 250
High school: Hargraves Military Academy (Va.)
Hometown: Canton, Ga.
2012-13 stats: 6.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.2 apg, 53.3 fg%, 64.3 ft%
Notable: Was ill during training camp and still working his way back up rotation.
No. 30 Desmond Simmons, Jr., F, 6-7, 225
High school: Salesian
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
2012-13 stats: 4.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 38.8 fg%, 69.3 ft%
Notable: One of UW’s top defenders out until at least mid-December after knee surgery.
No. 34 Gilles Dierickx, So., C, 7-0, 235
High school: West Hills Chaminade (Calif.), played one season at Florida International
Hometown: Ghent, Belgium
2011-12 stats (at FIU): 2.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Notable: Redshirted last season after transferring from FIU.
No. 1 Darin Johnson, Fr., G, 6-5, 200
High school: Sheldon
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
2012-13 stats (at Sheldon): Season high as a senior was 42 points.
Notable: Slasher with shooting ability who should contribute this firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org