SEATTLE – Washington will begin its 2014-15 men’s basketball season with more questions than answers.
How long will it take Jernard Jarreau, a 6-foot-10, now-245-pound forward, to refine his game after completing rehabilitation from the anterior cruciate ligament he tore in UW’s season opener last year?
Can Robert Upshaw, the 6-foot-11 center transfer from Fresno State, impact the Huskies’ frontcourt in the shot-blocking, rim-protecting way coach Lorenzo Romar envisions?
And can the Huskies shake off a string of mediocre seasons and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 despite losing leading scorer C.J. Wilcox?
The games don’t start until next month, but the Huskies have already started practicing, taking advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows teams to begin practices earlier than in the past.
Romar met with reporters on Thursday as part of the team’s media day. As usual, optimism reigned, even after a 2013-14 season in which UW finished with a 17-15 overall record and a 9-9 mark in Pac-12 play.
It was a frustrating year. Injuries and illness thinned the Huskies’ frontcourt, forcing Romar to play an undersized, four-guard lineup for much of the season. They changed their defensive philosophy, attacking ball-handlers less and “surviving” with a safe, conservative approach. They were, as their record indicates, an average basketball team.
Improvement will require a different identity. Romar believes the Huskies found one.
“I think we're a tougher team,” Romar said. “We have more versatility and we have more players that can make plays. I'm just anxious and excited to get out there and see what we can do with this group."
It starts with guards Nigel Williams-Goss, a sophomore, and Andrew Andrews, a fourth-year junior. They’re UW’s captains, and the Huskies’ top two returning scorers at 13.4 points and 12.3 points per game, respectively. Each had an eventful offseason. Williams-Goss briefly considered entering the NBA draft before deciding to return to school, and said he benefited greatly from attending the CP3 Elite Guard camp hosted by Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
Andrews, meanwhile, toured China as UW’s representative on the Pac-12 all-star team. Romar compared the 6-foot-2, 195-pound guard’s potential this season to Quincy Pondexter, referencing the improvement the former UW forward made between his junior and senior seasons.
“I think Andrew has come back, overall, just a much better leader and much more focused on the right things,” Romar said. “I think that's going to help him and our ball club."
Everyone on UW’s roster stayed in Seattle for the summer, lifting weights and playing pickup ball. An eight-week conditioning program headed by second-year strength coach Daniel Shapiro has players vowing to play a different brand of basketball this year.
As a result, senior guard Mike Anderson said, “we’re way tougher. We came into the summer really determined to get better, and I feel like everybody just bought into what we’re tying to do. And everybody knows we had to be tougher. Coach Romar loves tough players.”
That probably starts in the frontcourt, which the Huskies thought would be an area of strength last season. But Jarreau, now a fourth-year junior, tore his ACL in the season opener, and 6-foot-9 forward Shawn Kemp Jr. was diagnosed with Graves disease and needed a big chunk of the year to get back in playing condition.
Kemp will have to manage his illness for the rest of his life, but says he feels no ill effects from it, and Romar calls him the strongest player, physically, on the team. Jarreau, wearing a brace on his right knee, said Thursday that he’s “pretty much almost 100 percent,” though Romar said he’ll be limited in practice until at least the end of next week.
Upshaw could be the game-changer. At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, the third-year sophomore gives the Huskies the true center they lacked a year ago. Romar raves about his shot-blocking ability. Kemp says Upshaw “tries to dunk everything, which is something that we’re going to need.”
“We’re a lot bigger this year,” Williams-Goss said, “which should help us out tremendously.”
“My hope,” Romar said, “is that we can be healthy and we can get out there on the floor, and if that happens, it gives us an entirely different look from the look that we had last year with our group.”
NOTE: The Huskies did lose a post player already, as freshman forward Tristan Etienne decided earlier this week to leave the program, citing personal reasons. Romar said, “it wasn’t something we saw that was coming down the pike. I only want to say that he’s a fine, fine young man and a fine, fine student. He didn’t do anything remotely wrong. This is a decision him and his family made, and we respect his decision.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple