The genesis of Washington’s new defense began with one goal: “Don’t give up layups.”
If that seems like a simple task, then you don’t remember this team a year ago when they returned from the 2K Sports Classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden decimated and in despair.
At the time, the Huskies were 2-5 and the season was spiraling out of control. They were allowing 87 points per game and opponents were shooting 51 percent from the field, which ranked 346th out of 351 Division I teams.
That’s when coach Lorenzo Romar revamped the defense. He tossed out the team’s trademark ballhawking tactics that forced turnovers and implemented a scheme that packed the middle, protected the rim and forced teams to shoot outside.
Washington improved marginally on the defensive end and the changes likely salvaged what might have been a disastrous season. Still, no amount of repair could fix a limited front line that was shorthanded due to injuries.
In the rubble of last season’s mediocre 17-15 finish, the 17th-ranked Huskies discovered a newfound defensive identity that has sparked them to a surprising 7-0 start this year.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot, trying to explain that if we’re going to be successful at all, it’s going to be on the defensive end,” Romar said. “We explain that every year, but some teams grasp it more than others. Some teams embrace it more than others. This team has embraced it.”
It’s helped that Washington added 6-foot-11 center Robert Upshaw, who sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, and 6-10 forward Jernard Jarreau, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the last year’s opener, to the rotation.
And 6-9 forward Shawn Kemp Jr. has been more productive than at any point during his four-year career.
Furthermore, Romar has broken old habits and relied heavily at times on a 2-3 zone that’s been troublesome for opponents because of the enormous wingspan of Upshaw (7-5), Jarreau (7-5) and guard Mike Anderson (6-11).
“[We] have more shot-blockers, as opposed to last year when we were so small,” Romar said. “You get near the rim, we wouldn’t make you pay for it. This year, we make you pay for it.”
Upshaw leads the country with 4.7 blocks per game and he’s on pace to finish with 141, which would shatter UW’s season record of 67.
“We’re just trying to limit teams to one shot or not even that,” Upshaw said. “Get into driving lanes and cause a turnover.”
Sophomore guard Nigel Williams-Goss added: “We just want to make every shot difficult. We want to contest every shot. And we don’t want to give up layups. Then it ends with limiting them with one shot, which is the area where we need the biggest improvement on.”
The Huskies (7-0) are allowing 57.6 points per game, which is 28 points fewer than they did after seven games last year. This season UW opponents are shooting 33.6 percent from the field and 24.4 percent on 3-pointers, which ranks fifth and seventh, respectively, among 351 Division I teams.
After destroying then-No. 13 San Diego State last Sunday in a 49-36 victory — it was the Aztecs’ fewest points since joining the Division I ranks — UW’s defense will be tested Sunday against high-scoring Eastern Washington, which is off to a historic start.
The Eagles are 8-1 for the first time in their 32 years as a Division I team. Led by a pair of 20-point scorers in forward Venky Jois (21.1 points) and guard Tyler Harvey (20.4), Eastern Washington averages 85 points per game, which ranks 10th nationally.
“It’s important that we embrace and stay true to our identity,” Williams-Goss said. “For us it starts on defense. That’s not going to change no matter who we play.”