SEATTLE – Robert Upshaw stood outside Washington’s locker room on Sunday at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, vowing that the Huskies would work harder in practice this week to atone for their 77-56 loss at No. 12 Utah.
He spoke passionately – frustrated by the loss, but optimistic about the future.
“I believe in all my teammates,” said Upshaw, who scored 13 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked five shots in the game. “They believe in me, and I’m not going to give up on them. Whether they have a bad day or they put their head down, I’m not going to give up on them.”
After he answered questions from reporters, the star 7-footer walked up the arena’s long tunnel and boarded the team bus for the airport, where a charter flight transported the Huskies men’s basketball team back to Seattle.
Nobody knew at the time that it would be the final trip of Upshaw’s UW career.
On Monday afternoon, fewer than 24 hours after the team returned home from Salt Lake City, UW announced that Upshaw, the nation’s leading shot-blocker who came to the Huskies after a troubled freshman season at Fresno State, had been dismissed from the program for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Just like that, Washington’s already uncertain path to the NCAA tournament has taken a disastrous turn.
“We wish Rob well as he moves forward in his life,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said in a statement, “and we will do our best to support him in the future.”
Upshaw’s departure leaves the Huskies precariously thin in the frontcourt, especially with 6-foot-10 forward Jernard Jarreau expected to miss another two to four weeks as he recovers from knee surgery.
Washington (14-5, 3-4 in Pac-12) is down to just nine scholarship players – Jarreau included – and its only available players taller than 6-foot-7 are starting forward Shawn Kemp Jr., who is 6-foot-9, and seldom-used reserve center Gilles Dierickx, who is 7-foot.
And Upshaw’s skills are irreplaceable. He was the best shot-blocker in UW’s history, and his presence in the paint changed how opponents attacked the Huskies’ defense, which improved significantly this season. UW ranks eighth nationally in field-goal percentage defense at 36.5, and Upshaw is the primary reason. He set the school’s single-season blocks record in his 16th game, and finishes the season with 84 blocks in 19 games – a nation-leading average of 4.4, nearly a full block per game better than the next player on the list.
Upshaw also averaged 10.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and is projected by some NBA draft analysts as a potential first-round pick.
Yet as sudden as his dismissal was, it’s not the first time Upshaw has found himself in trouble. The Fresno, California, native originally chose to stay home and play for Fresno State, where he lasted only one season before being dismissed for multiple violations of athletic department policy.
He later transferred to Washington, where NCAA rules required that he redshirt during the 2013-14 season. But during the final several weeks of the season, when he wasn’t seen on the bench during games, it was revealed that Upshaw hadn’t been practicing with the team while dealing with what Romar would describe only as off-court issues.
Romar said at the time that he was unsure if Upshaw would be able to play in 2014-15.
“This is a situation,” Romar said in April, “(where) before you can get on the court, whether it’s here or somewhere else, you just have to take care of your business away from the court.”
An ESPN report on Monday indicated that Upshaw failed multiple drug tests at Fresno State and UW (link fixed), and a Yahoo Sports story written earlier this season noted that he spent time at John Lucas’ Houston-based treatment program after leaving Fresno.
But once practices began for the 2014-15 season, Upshaw was a full participant with the Huskies, and had coaches and teammates raving about the impact he could make on the court.
Romar saw personal improvements, too, noting that Upshaw had made “huge strides” since last year.
“He’s not the same person or player,” Romar said on Dec. 27. “So he’s come quite a ways.”
Upshaw said in mid-November, prior to UW’s season opener, that he felt he matured during his year off.
“I think the time that I took off at the end of the season was to really mature and get myself better and get ready for the next year, and Coach Romar really helped me on that,” Upshaw said. “So toward the end of the year when it was time for me to jump back into things, start working out with the team, doing those things, I just really bought in.
“I left all the frustrations, the disappointments, all the letdowns that I had been through and what I went through at Fresno State. I let it go in the summertime, and I really bought into my team.”
Now, he can only watch as the Huskies navigate the rest of their seemingly ill-fated season without him.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple