Washington forward Darnell Gant, who will be one of three key seniors for the Huskies, talked about providing leadership and a low-post presence next season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With reddened eyes still damp from tears, Darnell Gant embraced everyone in Washington’s tiny locker room following Sunday’s NCAA tournament defeat.
In hushed tones, he said he was proud of what the Huskies, the Pac-10 tournament champions, had accomplished this season.
The fourth-year junior talked about building a tighter bond with underclassmen and inviting them to late-night shooting sessions in the offseason.
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He said he wants to expand his role next season and fill the void left by the departure of senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning, UW’s only consistent low-post scoring threat this season.
Gant spoke at length about the importance of the group of soon-to-be seniors, which includes Isaiah Thomas and Scott Suggs, to “make sure we lead this team the right way and make sure we stay on track this summer.”
And maybe that was the first step the Huskies needed to take to make a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
A year ago, they lost just one senior — Quincy Pondexter — and the Huskies were the overwhelming choice to win the Pac-10 title. They finished 24-11 overall and third in the regular season.
This season, three seniors depart — Justin Holiday, Venoy Overton and Bryan-Amaning.
Early projections are positive for Washington in 2011-12, but it’s uncertain if the Huskies can keep pace with the conference leaders. Arizona and UCLA finished first and second and they’re the early favorites to win the Pac-12 title next season.
California, Stanford and Oregon will be much improved. Washington State, USC and Colorado, a new addition to the conference, can finish in the upper half if their top players don’t leave school early to play pro basketball.
Arizona State, Oregon State and Utah, the other conference newcomer, might be a couple of years away from serious title contention.
Meanwhile, the Huskies appear to be smaller in the middle and more explosive on the perimeter next season. They return seven scholarship players, and all have started at least four games.
The most immediate need is replacing Bryan-Amaning, who led the Huskies with eight rebounds per game and was second in scoring at 15.3 points.
Sophomore center Aziz N’Diaye leads a cadre of candidates that includes Gant, redshirt freshman Desmond Simmons and incoming freshman Jernard Jerreau.
Kevin Davis is another possibility. The 6-foot-10 forward played at Tacoma College Community College this season and agreed to sign with Washington. He’s on track to enroll in the fall, according to TCC coaches.
Washington has 12 scholarship commitments and could add another player before the season.
If the roster doesn’t change, the Huskies might lean heavily on the 6-8 Gant to provide inside scoring, low-post defense and rebounding.
“I’m really going to be focused on getting back to my roots, so to speak,” he said. “Getting back to going down on the blocks and establishing myself in the post.”
For most of his college career, Gant has preferred to play on the perimeter.
His career rebounding average is 3.6. However, in the last four games, the 225-pound forward averaged 6.7 rebounds.
“I’m ready to step up and take a bigger role next season,” Gant said. “I learned a lot just watching Justin, Matt and even Quincy. Watching what they did as seniors. But then, everybody has to get a little better, not just the seniors.”
N’Diaye started 25 games this season, his first with the Huskies. The 7-footer is an important cog defensively, although he averaged just 4.6 points.
Simmons, who sat out this season to rehabilitate an injured knee, believes he’ll be ready to contribute next season.
“That’s my plan,” he said. “I’m about 90, 95 percent. Next year I think I can help with rebounding, defense and scoring. Just doing whatever it takes. I know I can bring energy and effort. That’s not a question.”
Despite the loss of Overton, who ranks in the top five all-time on UW’s steals and assists list, the backcourt next season figures to be well stocked.
Thomas, a three-time all-Pac-10 pick, is an early conference MVP candidate.
Redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox and Suggs, Washington’s best three-point shooters, appear ready for breakout seasons, and freshman Terrence Ross has superstar potential.
The guard position becomes even more crowed when Abdul Gaddy returns. The 6-3 sophomore missed the final 22 games due to a knee injury. He was playing the best basketball of his college career before he got hurt and admitted his role will likely change because Thomas excelled at point guard.
“I know we can play together,” Gaddy said. “I’m not worried about that. I know I may have to re-establish myself, but I feel I’m going to come back stronger than ever.”
Washington also adds incoming freshmen guards Tony Wroten Jr. and Hikeem Stewart, a pair of local recruits.
Wroten is a dynamic 6-4 player with uncanny passing ability. The Garfield High product is expected to compete for a starting position. At 6-3, Stewart can slide to shooting guard. Still, the Rainier Beach High senior might have difficulty finding minutes.
Portland standout Andrew Andrews accepted a scholarship, but the 6-2 guard is scheduled to attend prep school next season and will enroll at UW in 2012.
Juggling so many guards will be a difficult task for coach Lorenzo Romar, who used nine different starting lineups this season and shuffled the starters three times in the final three games.
Despite concerns, the Huskies hope to return to the NCAA tournament.
“I think we’ll have a good team next year,” Wilcox said. “If we do what we need to do this offseason, stay committed and come back even stronger we’ll be OK.
“We have the talent to make another run like we did this season.”
• Bryan-Amaning will play April 6-9 in the Portsmouth Invitational, the premier postseason basketball showcase for college seniors.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278