It seemed a reasonable question at the time: Which was more likely to advance into the postseason: the 2008 Washington football team or the 2008-09 basketball team?
Now that we know the answer, of course, even the question seems distressingly out of touch.
But at this time last year, coach Lorenzo Romar’s basketball team was coming off a second straight season of regression, even drifting below .500.
Meanwhile, coach Tyrone Willingham’s football team – my apologies to those who just shuddered – was heading into a fourth season of what was then commonly mistaken for rebuilding. And there was real hope about a more experienced Jake Locker playing behind a vastly experienced offensive line.
Then the seasons played out, and it became apparent that conventional wisdom had misjudged both teams. Football fell to unimagined depths, while the basketball team not only soared back to the NCAA tournament but also won the school’s first Pacific-10 Conference regular-season title.
The point here isn’t so much the surprises behind us, but a reminder that there are more surprises ahead. The question is, will they be good surprises, as in the just-completed basketball season? Or bad surprises, as with Willingham’s farewell Huskies? Either is possible. But first, you need some kind of baseline conventional wisdom to be proved right or wrong.
Here’s a look:
Expectation: Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon will be missed. But this team is better prepared to endure their departures than the previous NCAA tournament team was to shoulder the loss of Brandon Roy. Another Pac-10 title is unlikely, because California and USC figure to return the heart of their NCAA tournament teams and UCLA figures to remain UCLA. But if Quincy Pondexter fulfills his potential as an all-league first-teamer, if the returning players progress, and if the freshman class lives up to its reputation, the Huskies should awaken confidently on Selection Sunday prepared to make an even longer tournament run.
Underachieves if: Brockman is even more irreplaceable than we currently understand. Perhaps the truest thought spoken into my digital recorder this season was Romar’s reminder that Brockman’s contributions were undervalued. Of course, everyone said they realized his value. But his full value – on and off the court – may become fully clear only in his absence. And there could be as much trouble from the loss of his leadership as from the loss of those 15 points and 11 rebounds. The team also could take a step back if Isaiah Thomas doesn’t shift as cleanly from point guard to scoring guard as Justin Dentmon did. And more trouble could brew if the members of a potentially crowded backcourt – Thomas, Venoy Overton, Elston Tuner, Abdul Gaddy and others – don’t accept their bench time as productively as Overton did this season.
Overachieves if: Pondexter becomes a Pac-10 player of the year candidate and potential lottery pick. All that backcourt talent meshes. Overton and Darnell Gant add some offense while retaining their existing virtues. Matthew Bryan-Amaning learns to finish what his often dazzling footwork starts. Juco transfer Charles Garcia proves to be Pac-10-ready on the court and in the classroom. Nearly forgotten guard Scott Suggs blossoms as a sophomore, and nearly forgotten forward Tyreese Breshers becomes a new Jamaal Williams.
Expectation: The losing streak stretches to 15 games in the opener against LSU and then ends the next week against Idaho. A few more wins follow, although not enough for bowl eligibility. The team plays with more passion – especially on defense. Jake Locker improves more in one season than he did in the previous two. Younger players develop. The team plays better in November than it did in September. And fans finally see real light at the end of the tunnel.
Underachieves if: It wasn’t the coaching. If the Huskies’ talent level was anywhere near as low as it appeared last season, then Steve Sarkisian and his new staff are going to have to recruit their way out of this hole. That would mean not only another long season, but – the last thing any UW fan wants to consider – yet another rebuilding program starting at square one. Or Sarkisian proves to have been a fine assistant – and a terrific Twitterer – but needs time to grow into a head coaching job. This team still seems to have no chance of winning with anyone but Locker under center. The kicking questions aren’t adequately answered. And the problem with having a veteran offensive line in 2008 is that you have a reworked offensive line in 2009.
Overachieves if: The talent Willingham recruited blossoms in his absence, as it did in Charlie Weis’ first season at Notre Dame. Sarkisian’s offense translates effectively from the hyper-talented Trojans to the rebuilding Huskies. Nick Holt’s defense hits, hurts and forces turnovers. Locker stays on the field and fulfills his potential as Tim Tebow Northwest. E.J. Savannah stays in Sarkisian’s good graces and therefore stays on the field. The potential of enough young tailbacks and receivers turns into production.
Which way will it play out? We’ll get our first indications at 4 p.m. Tuesday, when the Huskies report for spring football practice. Fans are invited to attend.
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808