Evidence that this could be a different (read: better) kind of season for the Washington Huskies men's basketball team came on Dec. 7, when the 13th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs visited Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Washington entered that game with a 6-0 record after winning the Wooden Legacy tournament championship with victories over San Jose State, Long Beach State and UTEP. The Aztecs, after winning 31 games and advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2014, held a 6-1 record, and that only loss was a 61-59 defeat against the 3rd-ranked Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the Maui Invitational.
So, that game against San Diego State was very much viewed as UW's first real test of the season. Was UW's defense really that much better? Could the Huskies prove it against a quality opponent? Were they good enough to beat a team that AP voters considered the 13th-best in the country?
On that day, they were. UW held SDSU to 20.4 percent shooting, and more or less coasted to a 49-36 victory. That game established what appeared to be a newfound defensive identity for the Huskies, and it vaulted them into the national rankings. They debuted at No. 17 in both polls.
After that game, I wrote: "It’s not unreasonable to believe now that March might actually matter again for a UW team that hasn’t been to the tourney since 2011." And it didn't even feel like a reach. The Huskies were obviously flawed offensively -- they couldn't shoot -- but it appeared they had truly turned a corner, defensively, and were finding ways to win the kind of games they likely would have lost the past few years. And with 7-foot center Robert Upshaw blocking four or five shots per game, even the Huskies' defensive miscues were mostly erased.
A return to the NCAA tournament looked even more likely after the Huskies beat No. 15 Oklahoma on a neutral floor in Las Vegas 13 days later. They were 10-0, ranked 13th, and home games against Tulane and Stony Brook were their only obstacles en route to a perfect nonconference record. They were even being mentioned in the same breath as Utah as one of the premier challengers to Arizona for the Pac-12 title.
But that Oklahoma game turned out to be the high point of the season.
The Huskies slopped their way to an unimpressive 66-57 victory over Tulane.
Then they lost at home to Stony Brook, the first hint that maybe they were playing over their heads during that 11-0 start.
Then they lost, 81-76, at California. Their defense failed them in the second half.
Then they lost, 68-60, in overtime at Stanford. They defended just fine, but their offense failed them throughout, and Nigel Williams-Goss missed a crucial free-throw in the final seconds of regulation.
Then they lost, 80-77, at home to Washington State. The Cougars made outside shots, forced a fast tempo and shredded the Huskies in transition. And starting forward Jernard Jarreau went down with a knee injury that required surgery and a 4-to-6-week layoff.
They did bounce back. Three consecutive victories, over Oregon State, Oregon and Colorado, breathed some life back into the Huskies' NCAA tournament hopes. After improving their record to 14-4, a big game at No. 12 Utah provided a chance to further improve their tourney resume, though simply playing a competitive game would have been encouraging enough to believe a strong finish was possible.
But the Utes torched UW's 2-3 zone defense, and won, 77-56. And fewer than 24 hours later, it got worse. Much worse. UW announced that it had dismissed Upshaw, the team's most valuable player, for violating team rules. The Huskies had obviously struggled even with Upshaw in the middle, but he at least gave them a chance to be competitive against the Pac-12's better teams.
The Huskies have played three games without him now. They've lost each -- to Stanford, California and Oregon -- though they had a chance to win both of the last two in the final minutes. Still, opponents made more than 50 percent of their field-goal attempts in each of those games, and it's not hard to conclude that Upshaw's absence is the primary reason for that. UW has no rim protection anymore. And while coach Lorenzo Romar's lineup creativity has yielded promising offensive progression -- UW's attacking, five-guard unit is particularly intriguing, if not sustainable -- it's easy to wonder if the Huskies' defensive struggles are even fixable this late in the season. At their best, UW ranked in the nation's top 10 in field-goal percentage defense. They've since slipped to 34th (38.9 percent), and allow opponents to shoot 45.3 percent in Pac-12 games.
That brings us to Sunday afternoon's game in Corvallis against Oregon State, and the question of what the Huskies' ceiling is, from a win-loss perspective, for the rest of the season. Prior to the California game, I thought UW's best-case scenario was probably somewhere around 19 victories. But to get to that number, I felt that they needed to beat California, split this current road trip in Oregon, beat Arizona State at home, beat Colorado at home and win at USC. Considering how porous the Huskies have been defensively, it just seems like too much to expect them to beat a team like Arizona or Utah (even at home) or summon enough consistent play to sweep a road trip. Stranger things have happened, of course, but if we're talking about a truly realistic best-case scenario, I think that's a pretty fair bar.
The reverse of that, of course, would be only one or two more victories, a first-round exit from the Pac-12 tournament, and a final overall record barely above .500. After an 11-0 start, that would be a pretty tough outcome to swallow, even with Upshaw's absence taken into consideration.
All of this has led to more criticism of Romar, who is on the verge of finishing a fourth consecutive season without an NCAA tournament appearance. Prior to last season, UW hadn't gone more than two years in a row during Romar's 13-year tenure without making the big dance.
The head coach deserves some of the blame, to be sure. He took a chance on Upshaw, and for 19 games, it was a productive gamble. But since his departure, it's become clear that UW's defensive renaissance relied too much upon the presence of an elite shot-blocker. And any time a team loses one player -- even one as impactful as Upshaw -- and experiences a significant dropoff as a result, it's probably a sign that proper depth has not been accumulated. Jarreau's injury didn't help matters, either. But UW's recent string of scholarship players who either haven't produced, left the team, or both -- that's a list that includes Desmond Simmons (transferred for his senior year), Hikeem Stewart (transferred early last season), Jahmel Taylor (transferred earlier this season), Tristan Etienne (quit the team prior to this season) and even Gilles Dierickx (still on the team and on scholarship, but not in the rotation) -- have left the Huskies a little shorthanded.
That said, I don't think the rest of this season serves as any kind of referendum on the worthiness of Romar as UW's head coach. The arrival of a top-10 recruiting class in a few months pretty much puts to rest any idea that his job is in jeopardy. This season has taken a frustrating, disastrous turn, and fans are rightfully disappointed. But when you have to dismiss your best player midway through the season, and you lose another starter to an injury for at least a month, some leeway should be granted. It would have been silly to expect Washington to play at the same level immediately after Upshaw's departure. Criticism of UW's four-game slide prior to his absence is more warranted, as it will be if the Huskies -- and Romar -- don't find a way to end their current skid (it's worth noting, too, that only two of UW's losses were decided before the game's final minute. It isn't as if they've suffered through a series of blowouts).
A win on Sunday against an improving OSU team would go a long way toward restoring some hope that the rest of the season might at least be watchable. A record of 15-8 (and 4-7) coming home would look a lot better than 14-9 (and 3-8). Jarreau's eventual return, which could come in the next week or two, will only help.
To that end, an encouraging finish to the season is still possible. But regardless of how they perform in these final eight games (plus the conference tournament), the Huskies won't come close to meeting the expectations they formed throughout December, when they played well enough to make folks believe that anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance would be a disappointment.
Barring something resembling a miracle -- they carry an RPI of 76 and have only two quality wins -- that disappointment has arrived. Shorthanded and undersized, it's on Romar and the Huskies to put a positive shine on it.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple