University of Washington

Without Upshaw, defense still work in progress for Huskies basketball team

Their postseason aspirations, the Washington Huskies insist, are still alive.

They just have to figure out how to play defense. Again.

“We just have to, right now, immediately, keep guys in front of us,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We don’t have much margin for error once a guy gets by us and gets in the paint. So we have to do a better job of doing that. If we can do that and continue to start to shoot these higher percentages, then, yeah, we definitely can reach our goals.”

The immediate objective, of course, is simply to beat the Oregon Ducks on Wednesday night at Matthew Knight Arena, where the Huskies have an 0-4 record since the state-of-the-art building opened in 2010-11.

And Washington (14-7, 3-6 Pac-12 Conference) badly needs this one after losing, at home, to Stanford and California last week.

Those defeats came on the heels of Romar’s dismissal of 7-foot center Robert Upshaw, the top shot-blocker in the country and a more effective defensive deterrent than the Huskies have ever had.

Now that he’s gone, the Huskies have precious little rim protection — a knee injury to 6-foot-10 forward Jernard Jarreau hasn’t helped, either — meaning man-to-man breakdowns more often result in easy layups or fouls. There were plenty of both last week against California, which shot 60 percent from the field and escaped Seattle with a 90-88 victory.

The Huskies can’t hope for another player to attempt to mimic Upshaw’s defensive presence. That isn’t going to happen. Instead, they’re fielding quicker lineups — sometimes playing five guards together — and trying to press and trap to force turnovers and fuel their transition game.

That attacking mindset helped UW force 14 turnovers against Cal, and the Huskies scored 19 points off those takeaways. But they too often sacrificed proper defensive position in an attempt to take the ball away, and wound up allowing easy buckets.

“If you have the leading shot-blocker in the country,” UW guard Andrew Andrews said, “it’s ... not that big of a deal if a guy gets a step on you because you’re able to kind of be on his hip and send him to (Upshaw) to block a shot or affect his shot. Now that we don’t have that, Romar’s really emphasizing squaring people up and making sure they can’t drive. Making sure they shoot over a hand. We’ve just got to do a better job of doing that.”

Romar spoke earlier this season about his team’s renewed belief in its defensive abilities, and throughout UW’s first 19 games, it showed. The Huskies ranked in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage defense — they’re still a respectable 23rd, at 38.3 percent — and looked as if that dedication would yield an NCAA tournament-worthy résumé.

But in the two games since Upshaw’s departure, opponents have shot 56.6 percent, and it has become clear that UW simply can’t play the same without him.

“I think our belief has wavered a little bit with our guys being out,” Romar said. “But again, nothing that practicing and having some success in a game won’t change. We just have to do it a different way.”

The Huskies insist it will make a difference if they do, and there were signs of progress against California. Spreading the floor with five guards, for example, has helped UW offensively, and if the team can maintain solid man-to-man principles while also pressuring the ball and forcing turnovers, the defense will improve, too.

That’s a big ‘if,’ though, especially on Wednesday night against Oregon, the highest-scoring team in the Pac-12.

“That’s the fun part about basketball — having ups and downs, and then you have to make adjustments to whatever happens in your situation,” Andrews said. “So I think as a team, we’re embracing that challenge and trying to find a way that fits us the best to start winning games.”

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