SEATTLE This might come as a surprise considering the final score when these teams played each other on Dec. 7, but it was a struggle for the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team to defend San Diego State’s offensive plays.
Not when San Diego State was running them, of course. But in the week leading up to UW’s 49-36 throttling of the Aztecs earlier this month, the Huskies’ scout team had its way with the starters.
“We’re running their plays and we’re scoring on them every other time, 50 percent of the time, maybe more,” said freshman guard KJ Garrett, one of three walk-ons tasked with scout-team duties before each of UW’s games. “We’re hitting shots, we’re getting to the rack, working them really hard, messing with them, making them work, getting them frustrated. And that really brought their energy up, and the scout team, we kept pushing it.”
The Huskies are 11-0 for the first time since 2005-06, and are ranked 13th in both major polls after beginning the season unranked and unheralded. Sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss leads the team in scoring (13.4 points) and assists (7.0). Seven-foot center Robert Upshaw leads the nation in blocked shots per game (4.64) and is a difference-maker on both ends of the court. As a team, the Huskies guard as if they finally believe strong defense must be the foundation of their identity.
But when they hold a team like San Diego State to 20.4 percent shooting from the field, or hold a better-shooting squad like Eastern Washington to 36.8, part of the credit should go to the players who comprise that scout team, who must quickly learn and then simulate each opponent’s schemes and tendencies in practice.
This year, along with lesser-used scholarship players, that crew includes the trio of walk-ons: Garrett, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard from Manhattan Beach, California; Dan Kingma, a 5-foot-10, 155-pound guard from Jackson High in Mill Creek; and Greg Bowman, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound forward from Mountlake Terrace.
Each has appeared in only two games — blowout victories over San Jose State and Grambling State — but they’ve earned recognition from coach Lorenzo Romar for their contributions in practice.
“They’re very smart. They all love Husky basketball,” Romar said. “They are actually all pretty good players. … Those guys are able to hold their own against our guys in practice, and our guys respect them, and they’re very helpful for our team.”
Each of them starred in high school. Bowman averaged more than 18 points per game as a senior at Mountlake Terrace. He long dreamed of attending UW as a student, and earned his walk-on spot following a couple open-gym invitations from the coaching staff.
Kingma’s name rings out in local basketball circles. His twin sister, Kelli, is a freshman on the UW women’s team. His older sister, Kristi, set UW’s single-season record for made 3-pointers and younger sister Brooke is a senior at Jackson (where all the younger Kingmas starred) and will do cross-country at Lipscomb University next year. His older brother, Brett, is now on Western Washington’s roster after stops at Oregon and Washington State. Their father, Gregg, was a basketball All-American at Seattle Pacific, and their mother, Gail, qualified four times for the Olympic marathon trials.
Dan said he received attention from some lower-tier Division I and Division II schools, but when UW extended a walk-on invitation last September, “right away, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” Kristi’s encouragement helped, too.
Garrett’s path was a little different. He said he wasn’t a dedicated basketball player growing up, but after being cut from his high school team as an underclassmen, he started working out with club coaches and training harder.
It paid off. Ivy League schools Cornell and Dartmouth showed interest in Garrett during a solid career at Rolling Hills Prep, where he transferred from Mira Costa High. Garrett and a friend even planned to attend Cornell together, but his ACT score came up one point shy of the school’s requirement.
When an AAU coach arranged a visit to UW to discuss the possibility of walking on, Garrett said he was “stoked” at the chance to play high-level D-I basketball “and possibly reach my potential as an athlete.”
So here they are, playing different roles now than they did in high school, but enjoying the opportunity to contribute to what might be a UW basketball renaissance.
“I think a big part of our role is trying to get these guys better every day and prepare them for every game,” Bowman said. “Pushing the guys in scout team, trying to make them better, playing our hardest and filling whatever role Coach wants us to do.”
That often requires a quick study of the Huskies’ opponent — its playbook, specifically — followed by their best on-court impersonation of a particular player.
“They tell us what to do, and we just do our best to play exactly like them,” Kingma said, “so once they get in the game, (UW’s starters) see similar tendencies from the players.”
And sometimes, they do it better in practice than their opponent does in the game.
“Being on scout team, they’ve really pushed us,” Williams-Goss said, “and there’s also been times when Coach has told us, ‘Hey, they’re a little bit better at this defense than the team that we’re playing is.’
“We don’t really look at them as just walk-ons. They’re just another player on the team. They go at us, just like we go at them.”
Romar appreciates the hustle.
“For the Eastern game, those guys on the scout team, man, they were excellent,” the coach said. “They were good, to where you have to say (to the starters), ‘Do it again, guys. Are you going to be able to guard them, or what?’ They did a very good job. They’re dialed in, they’re locked in, they’re able to execute and it’s not beneath them to do that. That helps, too.”
They made the most of their playing time late in last week’s 86-38 victory over Grambling. Kingma scored on a layup, much to the enjoyment of UW’s student section.
But the highlight of that four-minute stretch might have been Kingma’s failed alley-oop pass to Garrett, who corralled the long toss but couldn’t quite throw it down.
It’s a play Garrett, who possesses an impressive vertical leap, makes frequently in practice. This time, he missed. But Bowman was right there to clean it up, grabbing the rebound and putting the ball in the basket for his first points of the season.
For that reason, they’re not too upset the alley-oop didn’t work out. For now.
“Hopefully, we get another chance,” Kingma said, “because I know he’s making it next time.”