University of Washington

After ‘long year’ off, 7-foot center Robert Upshaw is ready to help lead Huskies

Standing an athletic 7-foot and 250 pounds but with precious little game film accompanying those intriguing measurements, Robert Upshaw might be the most mysterious player on the Washington Huskies’ basketball roster.

He is also among the most important. And the most confident.

“I know I’m one of the best players on this team in all areas,” Upshaw said Wednesday in his first media availability since transferring to Washington from Fresno State before the 2013-14 season. “I still struggle with being mature on the court — frustration, a lot of things, just because I haven’t played in a long time.”

Indeed, Upshaw last played in the 2012-13 season, when he was a heralded freshman recruit for hometown Fresno State. He appeared in 22 games and averaged 5.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots. In August of 2013, he was dismissed from the team after a series of rules violations.

He transferred to Washington, where he had to sit out the 2013-14 season per NCAA transfer rules. But he wound up spending a big chunk of last season away from the team, dealing with circumstances coach Lorenzo Romar was hesitant to discuss.

Romar said only that Upshaw was “doing his thing, getting everything right,” and that “this is a situation (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.”

His status, seemingly, was up in the air. The time off, Upshaw said, was so he could “mature,” a word he used repeatedly on Wednesday. When he returned to team activities in the summer, after what he called “a long year,” he knew it was time to get to work.

“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.”

There were “plenty of times” he wasn’t sure he was going to play this season, Upshaw said. But with the Huskies beginning the regular season on Friday with a home game against South Carolina State (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), Upshaw projects as one of the team’s most important pieces.

His size, athleticism and uncommon wingspan give the Huskies something they haven’t had in recent years, particularly on defense. Teammates say that in practice, he “dunks everything.” During UW’s exhibition victory last week over Saint Martin’s, Upshaw played only 16 minutes but scored seven points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a shot.

Romar said he hopes Upshaw and senior forward Shawn Kemp, who started the exhibition game (Upshaw did not), can be a “two-headed monster” in the post. He guessed that Upshaw’s conditioning, on a scale of 1-10, is at roughly a 7.

Upshaw’s excitement about this Huskies team is unabashed, despite UW’s three consecutive seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance.

“I’ve never been on a team this good,” Upshaw said. “Whether it was AAU, my first university, when I was in high school — I’ve never been on a team this good or played this high caliber. When I see us do things wrong on the court, I get frustrated and I let it take me out of my game, and it leads me to be inconsistent because I get down about it. So one thing (Romar) preaches to me the most is just be consistent every day, be a leader on the court every day, and help us win games.”

More than last season, when UW finished 17-15 and 9-9 in the Pac-12 Conference.

“The NCAA tournament is the main focus of this team right now,” said fourth-year junior Jernard Jarreau, a 6-10 forward who adds to UW’s revamped frontcourt after missing last year with a knee injury. “We all feel like we can get there. Coaches feel like we can get there. it’s just us going out there and progressing every night, just coming out every night with a chip on our shoulder and getting it done.”