The deepest, most talented roster in years – including the program’s first two high school All-Americans – a beloved, unique coach and having both the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAA tournament’s opening rounds in Seattle make this a potentially huge season for the Huskies.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Jazmine Davis’ eyes were red as she was taking jump shots before practice, the affects of fighting through a bad cold.
Yet even as she admitted “I’ve had better days” through a nasal, tired voice, she was still smiling.
About 15 feet to her right Talia Walton was smiling, too. The Huskies’ second-leading returning scorer behind Davis was grinning while she was practicing post moves at a side basket.
With all the Huskies’ women’s basketball team’s got going this season, what’s not to love?
Davis, the two-time All-Pac-12 guard, has scored more points than any Husky ever has through the first two seasons of a UW career. Now she has dynamic, indefatigable freshman Kelsey Plum in from Poway, Calif., to join her in one of the West Coast’s most talented backcourts.
Walton averaged almost 14 points per game last season as an All-Pac-12 freshman, while UW won 20 games for the second consecutive season and went 11-5 the league. That was despite injuries galore, no depth and a complete reliance on her and Davis to do all the scoring. Now Walton, who coach Mike Neighbors says is in “the best shape of her basketball life,” has redshirt freshman Katie Collier back from reconstructive knee surgery to be with her down low. Chantel Osahor, the Arizona high school player of the year last season, and Pac-12 All-Defensive Team member Aminah Williams are joining them in a bolstered frontcourt.
Plum and Collier are the first two McDonald’s high school All-Americans in the history of UW women’s basketball.
Well, unique, players-favorite Neighbors has gone from the Huskies’ top assistant to first-time head coach. The 44-year-old native of Arkansas is replacing Kevin McGuff, who left for his native area to lead Ohio State.
Add the fact that this season’s Pac-12 Tournament returns to Seattle at KeyArena plus last week’s announcement that Washington is hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament this coming March, and Huskies women’s hoops is booming with anticipation weeks before the opener.
It’s as complete a team and as realistically high expectations as UW has had since its last NCAA tournament appearance. That was in 2007.
“I feel like we finally have the pieces to the puzzle in place,” Walton said just before Monday’s practice that started the third week of preseason drills.
She was taking a brief break from working on low-post moves she will be using more this season, because Plum, Davis and Wetmore can handle much more of the outside work.
Last season as a freshman, Walton felt compelled to shoot and drive from outside to draw defenses’ traps and attention off Davis. It was a feat that Walton was 11th in the conference with 7.3 rebounds per game, given she spent so much of last season on the perimeter.
Imagine what Walton – and Williams, whose 338 rebounds last season were second-most in UW history despite her being only 6 feet tall – may be able to do inside this season with accomplished guards and posts all around them.
Now the 6-2 Walton is joking over having to dust off inside moves she hasn’t used since high school.
“We have depth now,” she said.
That’s why Davis is smiling, too.
“It makes everybody feel good, the huge amount of skill we have added to this team,” Davis said through that cold. “Even if my scoring goes down, our scoring is going to be much more even across all players.
“It makes us a more dangerous team.”
Neighbors, who installed much of UW’s pressure defense under McGuff last season, is using this time before the team’s initial exhibition game Oct. 31 against Concordia of Oregon to work more on offense.
“We haven’t really changed our identity at all. Our culture is very similar,” Neighbors said. “We didn’t have to change anything.
“We have scored against our (practice-team) guys more often than we have put on them ever through seven practices. So that is encouraging. Now, I am not sure we can stop any body right now. It might be 97-94 if we tried to play a game tomorrow.
“(So we’re) probably ahead offensively, a little bit behind defensively. I’d say we’re probably a bit ahead on team identity and team chemistry.”
Walton was part of the unanimous chorus of players cheering in April over UW’s choice of Neighbors as its new head coach. She would agree the identity and chemistry are assets.
“It feels like a team,” she said. “We are really close.”
And they have a uniting theme: Postseason games at home.
The conference thought having the Pac-12 tournament in KeyArena for the first time last spring was a big success. It is anticipating another festive, competitive atmosphere back there this coming spring, and the potential for Washington to be a top conference seed in its home city would add juice to an already compelling event.
A week after the Pac-12 tournament, UW is hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena for the first time since 2010. If the Huskies make the field of 64, the NCAA selection committee will put them in their home regional regardless of their seed in nods to increased attendance and lower travel costs for opening-round games.
The last time UW hosted the NCAAs, the Huskies were rebuilding had no chance to play in that tournament. They were nowhere near as talented, as deep or as confident as this year’s team, which is already talking about the potential for NCAA tournament games on its home court and using that possibility as a huge motivator.
“Yes, I think it’s the only way to achieve any of (those goals). You have to talk about them. … They have to embrace it,” said Neighbors, who as an assistant to McGuff at Xavier a few years ago was on an annual NCAA tournament team that came within a basket of the Final Four.
“These kids still don’t know what a NCAA practice looks like. None of them. The staff, I brought Fred Castro in. He comes from Tulsa. He was in the NCAA tournament last year. He knows what it looks like. I know what it looks like. Coach (Kevin) Morrison (who came from California and a Sweet 16 team) knows what it looks like. Adia (Barnes) knows what it looks like as a player (at Arizona). We just have to continue to set that standard for our kids because they don’t know.
“So yes, we talk about them. They’re out there. We haven’t set team goals yet but NCAA tournament is something they’ve talked about since the end of last year. So I know that one is coming in some shape, form, or fashion.
“I’ll be interested to see how aggressive they are with their goal. Knowing that you get a chance to have two home games if you do get into the tournament (they) could be really aggressive, I think.”
And judging by their early practices, these loaded Dawgs are going to have fun doing it.
“Oh, man, I feel it’s right in front of me right now!” Davis said, excited over the possibility of that elusive NCAA tournament appearance.
For a moment she sounded as if her cold was gone. She then playfully grabbed at the notebook of a practice visitor.
“It’s so exciting!” she gushed. “It feels like it’s right there for us to go get.”