Jan. 2, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - You know what this Huskies season needs?
A Seattle redux of the Reign Man.
It doesn't need panic.
Urgency, yes. But not the belief that if Washington (8-5) doesn't win its next three games all on the road to start the Pac-12 schedule this uneven season is essentially over.
More than C.J. Wilcox getting his groove back, more than Abdul Gaddy's execution of the high-post offense he is running for the first time this season, Scott Suggs keeping a 14-points-per-game pace or 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye staying out of foul trouble, these Huskies need Shawn Kemp Jr. They need him to decisively, unmistakenly emerge.
Yes, Kemp. The forgotten sophomore who didn't even put on a uniform until after the first month of Washington's uneven non-conference season. I say he will largely determine whether UW, which has won four consecutive Pac-12 regular-season or tournament championships, sprints out to a fast start in league play again beginning Saturday night inside raucous Friel Court at Washington State.
"I feel I can contribute," Kemp says, "a lot."
These Huskies need Shawn Kemp Jr. They need him to decisively, unmistakenly emerge.
You don't need the hoops insight of John Wooden to realize the Huskies are a perimeter-oriented team.
Its three top scorers are all guards - Wilcox, Suggs and Gaddy. And with brash redshirt freshman Andrew Andrews off the bench that position is home to what little depth Washington has.
Opposing teams, of course, know this. Connecticut sure did last weekend. UConn chased and dogged Wilcox and Suggs all over the Hartford Civic Center into a combined 26-percent shooting night in Washington's 61-53 loss. It would have been a huge RPI win had Washington's shooting been even mediocre.
Or if Kemp had gotten more chances.
The son of Seattle SuperSonics 1990s dominator still known around here as the "Reign Man" wears dad's former No. 40. And there are signs the younger Kemp is about to get a chance to reign on the Pac-12.
For all the 7-foot N'Diaye does - rebounding, shot blocking, shot altering, lane controlling -- coach Lorenzo Romar calls Kemp, his 6-foot-9 power forward, the Huskies' biggest scoring threat inside.
Asked before Kemp's career bests of nine points, nine shots and 21 minutes last weekend at UConn whether Kemp needs to get more touches inside, Romar shook his head affirmatively. And with emphasis.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Romar said.
"We need to get him the ball more."
Kemp then went out at Connecticut and got two fouls in the first half. So did N'Diaye and Gaddy. That effectively shoved the entire scoring load onto Wilcox and Suggs. And those two were cold. Freezing, actually, as if they were playing outside in snowy Hartford. They combined to shoot 7 for 27, 25.9 percent.
Wilcox was 2 for 12. It was the second-worst shooting night of his career with at least 10 attempts; he was 2 for 13 last January at his native Utah. And the entire Pac-12 will be keying on him beginning with WSU Saturday night, since league foes have seen him swishing away for three seasons now.
The Huskies need consistent scoring inside to balance the load on Wilcox, Suggs and Gaddy.
They need Kemp.
He ended last Saturday night 4 for 9 from the field for nine points, second-most along with Andrews for UW behind Suggs' hard-earned 15. Kemp's nine shots were five more than his previous career high.
If he can stay away from fouls early Saturday, expect him to set another personal mark for attempts in Pullman this Saturday.
FINDING NUMBER 40
Jumpers and flow are difficult to come by on the road in conference play, where UW also plays at California and Stanford next weekend. But turnaround 5-footers in the lane and low posts? Those can be mainstays no matter where the game is played or whom it is against.
Going to Kemp more inside off the many options of the high-post offense would also go a long way to establishing the intensity and ruggedness that the Huskies have had only in spurts this season.
"We keep working on a different pattern. A pattern being that when Washington plays, it plays with a high level of focus and intensity whenever they are out on the floor," Romar has said. "(That) whatever the score is, we are going to play with a high focus and a high level of intensity.
"That needs to be our pattern."
Kemp can set that trend.
He has 23 shots in six games, after missing the first seven following a torn patella tendon on a knee that bothered him all summer. He needs to average more like 10 shots per game. At a minimum, that would keep defenses more honest inside and to keep Wilcox from getting completely blanketed.
Kemp makes these inconsistent, still-developing Huskies more whole. Far more difficult to defend - and ultimately, beat.
Whatever the score is, we are going to play with a high focus and a high level of intensity. That needs to be our pattern.
He currently has more quickness, aggressiveness and confidence than he had at any point last season, when he was a freshman playing for the first time competitively in three seasons. His jump hooks and turnaround shots in the lane are assets UW hasn't had much if at all during the Romar era.
Romar explains these Huskies are "accustomed" to feeding the ball in scoring situations to Wilcox, to Suggs, to N'Diaye, the veterans with three, four seasons in the program.
Kemp has been with the Huskies for one-plus seasons - after not playing basketball for the equivalent of two full seasons because of transfer and eligibility issues between Cherokee High School in Canton, Ga., Hargraves Military Academy in Virginia and UW. He committed to play at Auburn and then at Alabama before finally finding Washington.
"We are not accustomed to giving Shawn the ball as much," Romar said. "Last year, although it was there, he wasn't as confident as he is now in scoring the ball. (Plus) he'd been out four weeks (this season). So we've never had a situation where he is the guy we are calling his number all the time."
Time to call No. 40. Often.
"We need to learn that," Romar said. "We need to learn it quickly, because he can score it down there."
More of Kemp inside can also help aid something else that has ailed the Huskies for much of this season.
"We are holding teams to 42 percent shooting. If we do a better job rebounding and not giving up second-chance points we'd probably be at 41percent or better," Romar said.
It's a telling point.
While Quincy Pondexter, Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Ross, and Tony Wroten led Washington to those four straight league titles offensively, their last four Huskies teams posted the four best field-goal percentages in Romar's 11 seasons leading the program. The 2008-09 team held teams to a Romar-era low .418 shooting percentage. The 2010-11 team equaled that.
Last season, UW won its second outright regular-season conference title in more than a half century while holding teams to a field-goal rate of .422. That was despite porous defense throughout glaring patches of the season, most noticeably 92-73 loss to South Dakota State, an 87-59 loss at eventual conference-tournament champion Colorado -- and in the overtime loss to eighth-seeded Oregon State to begin the Pac-12 tournament that doomed UW's NCAA chances.
Through 13 games this season Washington's field-goal percentage defense is .423. But it could end up better than the best of Romar's previous teams if it would begin rebounding more consistently.
The Huskies' rebounding margin of plus-2.8 is 10th in the Pac-12. That would be the lowest mark for a season under Romar since the 2004 team, another guard-oriented group led by Nate Robinson and Will Conroy. Those guards weren't exactly known for their work cleaning the glass.
Kemp getting more minutes and a bigger role can do nothing but help the rebounding margin.
With Kemp in street clothes still recuperating from the knee injury in late November, Colorado State out-rebounded Washington at home by an astounding 45-21 in an 18-point loss.
"It was frustrating sitting on the bench knowing I could help," he said upon his return.
IT'S STILL ONLY JANUARY
It's tempting to say the trip last weekend to Connecticut, which had a ranking of 25 in the all-important RPI that helps determine the NCAA tournament field, plus these three road games to begin the Pac-12 schedule represent the most pivotal part of UW's season.
Not with two full months still to play before the conference tournament.
Not with two, RPI-vital games against undefeated, No. 3 Arizona, at home Jan. 31 and in Tucson Feb. 20. Not with two more resume-builder games in early February and early March against resurgent UCLA, which just beat seventh-ranked Missouri and has perhaps as much talent as anyone in the league.
Not with an NCAA tournament committee renowned for weighing late-season performance heavily in selecting its 64-team field each March. Washington learned that harder than any team ever had in the conference last season. The Huskies started out 4-1 in league play on their way to 14-4 - before becoming the first team win the league title but not make the NCAA tournament.
And, as Romar says, "not when you start out 0-5 before - and you had two home games in that stretch. No, I can't say that."
Romar is referring to his 2003-04 team, that last one so deficient in rebounding, that began conference play 0-5 including home losses to USC and UCLA. Those Dawgs finished 12-6 in the Pac-10 and became Romar's first NCAA tournament team.
So, no, the Huskies are not panicking. Not yet.
"We're still confident," Gaddy said after the loss at UConn that UW felt easily could have and should have been a win.
"We have just got to make sure we keep getting better and play with an edge."
And also with a Kemp.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.