Markelle Fultz is everything the Washington Huskies hoped he would be.
Truthfully, he is probably even better than that, quite possibly the most talented player ever to wear a UW men’s basketball uniform. He is certainly the most talented freshman the Huskies have ever had, and perhaps the most talented freshman in the country this season and a potential No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
All of which makes this miserable UW season even more confounding.
Fultz leads the Pac-12 in scoring by nearly five points per game over the next guy — Arizona State’s Torian Graham, whom the Huskies face Wednesday night in Tempe — with a per-game average of 23.4 points, which would rank second in school history, if he keeps it up.
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That mark is even higher (25.9 ppg) in UW’s seven Pac-12 games. Fultz also leads the team in assists and has scored 30 or more points in five games this season — that’s already tied for fifth-most in a career in UW history. He enters Wednesday’s contest having scored 30 or more points in three consecutive games, including a 37-point performance in a victory over Colorado in which he did not make a single 3-pointer.
And yet here are the Huskies with their 9-10 record, their 2-5 mark in league play and their NCAA tournament hopes extinguished before the calendar turned to 2017. Fultz is amazing, the kind of player who assures folks will watch the Huskies play no matter how many games they lose, but he has so little help — particularly on defense, where Fultz has his lapses, too — that his remarkable achievements may end up a mere footnote.
UW coach Lorenzo Romar, who bears the brunt of nearly all criticism of his struggling team, is quick to marvel at Fultz and defend him from those who suggest he has a hand in the Huskies’ shortcomings — such as Pac-12 analyst Kevin O’Neill, who said last week during a television broadcast that Fultz needed to play harder and improve his body language.
“Anyone that wants to entertain the thought for a second that Markelle Fultz isn’t doing enough or try to put it on him,” Romar said, “I’ll just say you’re wrong, whoever thinks that.”
The coach knows why his team isn’t good. So does anyone else who has watched them play.
“We’re not playing good defense,” Romar said. “Pretty simple to me.”
In a 94-72 loss to Utah last week, the Huskies allowed the Utes to shoot 60 percent from the field with 60 points in the paint and 20 layups or dunks. UW ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense overall and eighth in league games only.
But Wednesday’s game might offer the Huskies a temporary reprieve from being the worst defensive team on the floor. Arizona State (9-11, 2-5) is the only Pac-12 team ranked lower than UW in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy — UW is 280th, ASU is 282nd — and the Sun Devils rank last in the conference in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense both overall and in league games only.
That’s good news for Fultz, and for the Huskies. But ASU’s starting lineup features four players averaging more than 13 points per game, and while the Sun Devils lack meaningful depth, they have enough scoring talent to expose UW’s defensive issues.
The Huskies also have lost seven consecutive Pac-12 road games dating to last season, though they have won their past five in Tempe.
“We’ve seen glimpses of us playing great defense, and we’ve had stretches where we’ve played great defense,” sophomore guard David Crisp said, “but our challenge is keeping that going throughout the whole game.”
Christian Caple: 253-597-8437
WASHINGTON (9-10, 2-5 PAC-12) AT ARIZONA STATE (9-11, 2-5)
8 p.m., Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Arizona
TV: ESPNU. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Washington leads, 43-37.
Statistics for 2016-17:
4 Torian Graham, G (6-5, sr.): 18.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg.
0 Tra Holder, G (6-1, jr.): 17.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg.
11 Shannon Evans II, G (6-1, jr.): 15.0 ppg, 4.5 apg.
44 Kodi Justice, G (6-5, jr.): 7.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg.
5 Obinna Oleka, F (6-8, sr.): 13.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 23.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 5.8 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 13.9 ppg, 2.8 apg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg.
41 Matthew Atewe, F (6-9, jr.): 2.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 10.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg.
Scouting report: Think the Huskies have been bad defensively this season? Arizona State has been even worse. The Sun Devils allow opponents to score 87.7 points per game and shoot 53.6 percent from the field in conference games, and they are the only Pac-12 team ranked behind UW in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. … Still, ASU can score. Graham is the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12, and four of ASU’s starters average 13.6 points or more per game. Justice is ASU’s best 3-point shooter at 42.7 percent, and Graham and Holder are both capable from the perimeter, too — Graham has attempted more 3-pointers (154) than any player in the Pac-12, making them at a 39.0 percent clip. But the Sun Devils have essentially no bench; in their last game, their reserves played a total of just 13 minutes. Graham, Holder, Evans and Oleka each average 32.8 minutes per game or more. … One reason for ASU’s lack of depth: freshman Sam Cunliffe, the former Rainier Beach star, decided to transfer after playing just 10 games. He recently committed to Kansas. … ASU lost six nonconference games, to Northern Iowa, Davidson, Kentucky, Purdue, New Mexico State and Creighton. The Sun Devils finished 11th in the Pac-12 last season with a 5-13 record (15-17 overall) and were picked to finish 11th again in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. … Bobby Hurley is in his second season as ASU’s head coach after leading Buffalo to a 42-20 record in two seasons. … Graham and Evans both came with Hurley from Buffalo and sat out last season. … Oleka is one of four Pac-12 players averaging a double-double this season. He ranks second in the Pac-12 in rebounding. … Evans is the Pac-12’s top free-throw shooter at 85.5 percent, though he has attempted only 76 free throws in 20 games. … The Huskies haven’t lost to ASU in Tempe since Jan. 8, 2010, and they’ve won 10 of their past 11 and 23 of their past 27 against ASU overall.
Christian Caple: firstname.lastname@example.org