Markelle Fultz’s sore knee — the one that kept the Washington Huskies’ best player out of their last two games — is getting better. Fultz has been able to do a little more in practice this week, UW coach Lorenzo Romar said, and was thought to be ready for 5-on-5 drills on Wednesday.
But Romar still terms Fultz’s status as “day to day” ahead of Thursday’s 8 p.m. game against Arizona State at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, saying the star freshman will be “pretty much (a) game-time decision.”
“Again, each day is different with it,” Romar said before Wednesday’s practice. “If he continues to make progress, we’re probably more optimistic than pessimistic.”
And maybe desperate, too, because UW’s two games without Fultz last week were bleak and bleaker: an 81-66 loss at Colorado — a team the Huskies had previously defeated — and an 85-61 pummeling at Utah.
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Fultz leads the Pac-12 in scoring (23.2 per game) and leads the Huskies in assists (6.0), minutes played (35.8) and 3-point field-goal percentage (42.1). He is the projected No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. If he plays — and is at least close to full strength — he at least gives the Huskies a chance to snap their seven-game losing streak and claim their third conference victory.
If he needs to sit again, victory becomes a tenuous proposition.
Either way, Romar wants the Huskies to favor a more calculated offensive approach. They slowed down some against Colorado and Utah but still committed 30 turnovers in those two games. Pushing tempo is harder without Fultz, but UW’s offense has struggled throughout Pac-12 play even with their star healthy.
“I thought in the Colorado game, even in Utah, we played a little differently because we played a lot more conservative without Markelle in there,” Romar said. ‘We had to be a little more calculated. Maybe that’s what this team needs to do (and) needs to play even when Markelle comes back.”
Without Fultz against Utah, sophomore guard David Crisp scored a career-best 31 points and sophomore forward Noah Dickerson scored 18, but the rest of UW’s roster combined for just 12 points on 5-for-23 shooting.
“I think we learned how big of a piece he is,” sophomore guard Matisse Thybulle said. “I think we all knew that, but without him, we really started to see it, and I think it’s helping us learn how to play more together. (We’re) putting people in roles they aren’t normally in, and by doing that, everyone needs to raise their level of play.”
This week almost certainly presents Fultz’s final two opportunities to play at Hec Ed — UW also hosts No. 5 Arizona at 5 p.m. Saturday — as he is expected to enter the NBA draft. Romar said Fultz has been “running around, shooting, ball-handling a little bit. (Wednesday), we anticipate him being able to go 5-on-5, and we’ll go from there.”
If healthy, Fultz should be able to score against ASU, which remains the only Pac-12 team beneath Washington in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. But the Huskies struggled to do that in their first game against the Sun Devils this season, an 86-75 loss in Tempe on Jan. 25, as UW shot 41.3 percent from the field and just 30.6 percent in the first half.
But Fultz scored 28 points and had nine assists and eight rebounds in 39 minutes, ending just shy of the first triple-double in UW men’s basketball history despite a rough offensive performance by the Huskies.
The Huskies had open looks all game, Romar said. They simply couldn’t make them. Fultz returning would help them do that.
Whether or not Fultz can play Thursday, Romar said he expects the freshman to return at some point this season. And the coach reiterated that Fultz is not sitting out simply because the Huskies have little for which to play.
“He has not been allowed to play. Markelle, you’ve got to hold him back from wanting to play,” Romar said. “If you’re playing H-O-R-S-E, if you’re playing on the playground, if you’re playing on an 8-foot rim, he wants to play. But he was held back from playing. So, no. Where we’re at in the season has nothing to do with if he’s playing or not.”
WASHINGTON (9-16, 2-11 PAC-12) VS. ARIZONA STATE (12-14, 5-8)
8 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion
TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Washington leads, 43-38.
Statistics for 2016-17:
4 Torian Graham, G (6-5, sr.): 18.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg.
0 Tra Holder, G (6-1, jr.): 17.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg.
11 Shannon Evans II, G (6-1, jr.): 15.7 ppg, 4.2 apg.
44 Kodi Justice, G (6-5, jr.): 8.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg.
5 Obinna Oleka, F (6-8, sr.): 12.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 23.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 6.0 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 14.5 ppg, 2.9 apg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 11.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg.
33 Sam Timmins, F (6-11, fr.): 3.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg.
Scouting report: At 12-14 overall and 5-8 in conference, the Sun Devils represent one of UW’s best two chances for a victory in their final five Pac-12 games, though ASU should be considered a heavy favorite if UW star Markelle Fultz cannot play. … ASU has lost seven of its past 10 games. …The Sun Devils have two of the Pac-12’s top five scorers in league play (Graham and Holder), and Evans ranks 12th. Oleka ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in rebounding against league opponents. … In its last game, Arizona State’s bench players played only 20 minutes combined — 11 by freshman forward Ramon Vila, and 9 by freshman forward Jethro Tshisumpa. Four of ASU’s starters average 32.5 or more minutes per game. … KenPom.com ranks Arizona State 126th in the nation, compared to 165th for the Huskies. … ASU carried a four-game losing streak into its late-January home game against the Huskies before winning, 86-75. The Sun Devils are 3-3 since that losing streak, with victories over UW, Oregon State and Stanford. ASU also dropped a 71-70 decision at No. 7 Oregon. … Against Pac-12 opponents, ASU ranks seventh in the league in field-goal percentage, 11th in field-goal percentage defense, 11th in assists, second in turnover margin and 11th in defensive rebound percentage. … UW’s January loss to ASU was just its second in its last 12 games against the Sun Devils. … A loss Thursday would mark UW’s first losing streak of longer than seven games in coach Lorenzo Romar’s 15-season tenure. It would also put the Huskies’ win-loss record more than seven games below .500 for the first time in Romar’s tenure.
Christian Caple: email@example.com