Huskies have already matched last season's win total under first-year coach.
Kevin McGuff is the consummate coach, right down to his quotes. He’s more insightful than colorful, not an anecdote or analogy chaser, just a deep thinker who communicates with precision and without fluff.
In some ways, the first-year Washington women’s basketball coach reminds me of another Husky, who happens to be three years into the kind of dramatic turnaround that McGuff seeks.
Here’s the most striking similarity: Both have a crystallized vision that they basically recite upon request, but they’re quite curious and flexible when they need to be and they enjoy the challenge of building incrementally. They’re not pie-in-the-sky theorists. They’re real coaches with real ideas to inspire change — and the guts to execute them.
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So there’s a twofold hope that they inspire: hope based on how impressive they are right now and hope based on the certainty that, because they are so conscientious, they will continue to evolve.
In McGuff’s case, it’s impressive that he is making the most of Year 1 because he is coaching in the present. It would be easy for McGuff to make this season all about the future and attempt to force his team to play the exact style that his teams played during his highly successful run at Xavier. But the players are different, and so McGuff and his staff have done what good coaches do. They have adjusted.
Though the dream is to build a team that employs a faster and more attacking style, these Huskies have been competitive because McGuff has focused mostly on making it a functional rebounding and half-court defensive team. The Huskies are playing faster, but many things, especially on offense, have been tailored for this team. And it’s working.
The Huskies finished 11-17 a year ago, their fourth straight losing season, which led to former coach Tia Jackson’s firing. At 11-8 this season, they’ve already matched their 2010-11 win total. Washington ranks 23rd in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to 34.7 percent shooting. And with Regina Rogers in the middle, the Huskies are tied for 51st in the nation with a plus-5.0 rebounding margin. Those are the biggest reasons that this team might finish above .500 for the first time in five years.
Washington envisions a better tomorrow, but today is most urgent. And at the moment, the Huskies have made significant progress during McGuff’s first season.
“I really believe in coaching the team you have, not the one you may have,” McGuff said. “I owe it to them to give them the best chance to have success. If not, I feel like I’d be doing the team a disservice.”
Half of the Huskies’ eight losses have been by five points or less. Three of those close defeats have come in Pac-12 games, which explains their 3-6 conference mark. Washington is a couple of plays away from having an extraordinary season, and it’s only natural to wonder how many of those tight games they could’ve won with a healthy Kristi Kingma, their leading scorer who is out for the season with a knee injury.
But McGuff is a realist.
“Sure, it does (make you wonder), but then reality quickly brings me back,” McGuff said. “That’s probably one of my strengths. I’m very much living in a realistic place with our team. We have to get better.”
Count Washington senior forward Mackenzie Argens among the McGuff believers. She is convinced he will do what Washington athletic director Scott Woodward spent big money (an average of $475,000 over five years) for the coach to do — return the Huskies to national prominence in women’s basketball.
“From the first meeting with McGuff and his assistant coaches, from Day 1, I knew UW is on its way back to being a powerhouse,” Argens said. “I’m honored to play for them in Year 1. There’s so much more to come.”
Ask Argens why she’s so certain, and she says it’s all about communication. She believes in their basketball philosophies, but just as important, she believes in the people delivering it. In a short time, McGuff — along with assistants Mike Neighbors, Kevin Morrison, Adia Barnes and the rest of the staff — have developed trust with players that they didn’t recruit.
“They’re so personable,” Argens said. “You can talk to them about anything. They have so much experience behind them in just knowing how to deal with a team. They understand that. They’re an awesome group.”
Funny, football players used to say the same about Sark three years ago.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer