By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – C.J. Wilcox has a sense.
And if it’s anything like his shooting, he may be dead on.
The redshirt senior sharpshooter is back from foot surgery in the spring and in command entering his fifth and final year at UW. He is showing the confidence and presence of a returning, two-time team leader in scoring. He is running the team, in the words of his coach, “like a point guard.” And he has help in the arrival of ultra-poised freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and the debut of transfer power – and we mean power – forward Perris Blackwell.
Wilcox also hears his Huskies have been picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 this season, after losing three starters from an 18-16, National Invitation Tournament team. And he shakes his head.
“I definitely think we are going to surprise some people this year,” Wilcox said.
The surprise is likely to come from Blackwell. The 6-foot-9, 260-plus-pound force down low sat out last season after transferring from San Francisco, where he averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game as an All-West Coast Conference honorable-mention selection in the 2011-12 season. Blackwell wowed Huskies coaches and teammates in practices last season with his array of decisive scoring moves near the basket.
Now eligible beginning with Wednesday’s 7 p.m. exhibition game against Central Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena and Nov. 10’s opener at home against Seattle University, Blackwell is a central part of Washington’s high-post offense – and, thus, its season.
“Yeah, man. I mean, I like to score,” Blackwell said, “and I like to do it in a variety of ways. I just want to show it here. I didn’t really get to show that at my last school.
“I just want to dominate my position.”
Romar is gushing over what Blackwell, plus the debut of 7-foot sophomore center Gilles Dierickx, a transfer from Florida International, and the return of 6-10 forward Jernard Jarreau will do for an offense that lacked dependable scoring options inside last season.
“Perris, boy, we are going to enjoy having him this year,” the Pac-12’s most-tenured coach said on the eve of his 12th season leading the Huskies. “He gives us an option we haven’t had the last few years.”
An inside presence is something Wilcox has lacked while leading the Huskies in scoring the last two seasons despite consistent double teams by opponents and the nagging foot pain last winter. With Williams-Goss already showing what Romar calls “an uncanny ability to run a team. … He has a special gift,” and Blackwell providing a new inside scoring threat, Wilcox’s estimation that these overlooked Dawgs might have more bark than advertised has merit.
In preseason scrimmages the Huskies showed far more scoring ability than it had at any time last season. Andrew Andrews, a determined sophomore guard who often bulls his way into the lane to score, has stepped up his game with the arrival of Williams-Goss, creating a healthy competition at point guard. Andrews and Williams-Goss have known each other since they were kids playing in the AAU leagues around their native Portland, Ore., area.
Romar says Jahmel Taylor, a 5-11 freshman guard from Los Angeles, is “very aggressive and can really shoot.” Fellow new guard Mike Anderson is a 6-5 transfer from Moberly Area Community College in Missouri who adds size and defense on the perimeter.
“This is, I believe, the tallest roster we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Romar said of his four players 6-9 or taller.
That’s happened on only one other UW roster in the last dozen years, in 2003-04. Two of that group’s four tall trees had not played in college before. These big Dawgs all have major-college game experience.
The most impacting one is likely to be Blackwell and he hears opportunity knocking.
“We were missing that consistent, dominating post presence,” he said, assessing last season from UW’s bench. “It was tough, too, us getting used to the new, high-post offense.
“This year’s team is going to do more scoring with it.”
It also has a chip on its collective shoulder. Washington has never missed the NCAA tournament in three consecutive seasons since Romar arrived in 2002.
“We were 18-16 last year and did not make the NCAA tournament. We’ll start with that as motivation,” Romar said. “We’re looking forward to this season. We’re anxious to get back and get rid of that sour taste.”
The one word coaches use most to describe Williams-Goss is “winner.” As a McDonald’s high school and Parade magazine All-American, he has lost fewer games in the last five years than he has fingers.
He is likely to start from game one – and he already knows how he and his new team will play.
“I don’t think it’s any secret: Just attack, attack, attack. Attack offensively. Attack defensively,” Williams-Goss said. “Like Coach Romar said, we want to be a team that punches first. We don’t want to be on the defensive. We want to attack at both ends of the floor.”
The newfound depth this season will allow Romar to get back to the pressuring defense and high-tempo offense that have been his hallmarks while leading UW to six NCAA tournaments, three Sweet 16 appearances, two conference regular-season championships and three league tournament titles.
“We’ll go more to picking up earlier (defensively in possessions) this year, trying to establish our pressure earlier than we have been able to in a while,” Romar said.
But the new way the NCAA is requiring officials to call games might make that pressure tougher to apply.
The Huskies have gone through frustrating, preseason scrimmages officiated by Pac-12 referees who have called any and all contact by defensive players. Hand checks and arm bars are being whistled immediately. The charge-block call has also changed; officials are now calling blocking fouls on the defense if there is any contact after the offensive player begins any upward movement – even if it is only with his arms. Previously, as long as a defensive player was set in position before the offensive player left the floor it was a charge.
“Do know,” one Pac-12 official said apologetically to the Huskies after a whistle-filled scrimmage last week, “we feel your frustration. But this is what they want us to call.”
At least early on in the season the deeper teams that can withstand foul trouble may be the ones that win.
The Huskies’ early schedule is challenging.
Washington is in the 2K Sports Classic benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project. After the season opener, UW hosts UC Irvine and Eastern Washington in the 2K Sports Classic then, win or lose, plays at Madison Square Garden in New York for the third time in three seasons. On Nov. 21 the Huskies meet Indiana and on Nov. 22 they will play either Connecticut, No. 18 in the Associated Press’ preseason top 25, or Boston College at MSG.
The Huskies also play at tough San Diego State Dec. 8 and at Tulane Dec. 17 in a homecoming game for Jarreau, a New Orleans native. They host UConn on Dec. 22.
The Pac-12 season starts Jan. 2 at Arizona State and Jan. 4 at Arizona, the preseason favorite to win the league. The Pac-12 home opener is Wednesday, Jan. 8 against Utah.
For Romar, this is the second season after a realization he needed to change aspects of the program – from how it recruited to how it practiced and played games. That was after Washington became the first team to win a major conference’s regular-season title yet be left out of the NCAA tournament, in March 2012.
Last season the big changes were the introduction of the high-post offense, and the hiring of top assistant Brad Jackson, who won a Division-II national title while coaching almost three decades at Western Washington.
This season, almost half the roster will be making their Huskies debuts. So will assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger, who had been Iowa State’s top assistant. Raphael Chillious has returned to Romar’s staff after one year away at Villanova.
“After we won the league and didn’t make the NCAA tournament, we definitely did a lot of soul searching,” Romar said. “Last year we made some changes.
“And this year, this is definitely a new team. We have six new faces. Last year we changed systems. This year we’ve changed coaches. So there’s a lot of newness here right now.”