The biggest concern for a Washington men’s basketball team that didn’t play in a postseason tournament for the first time in seven years is replacing its best player.
The Huskies will spend the offseason trying to figure out how they’re going to move on without senior sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox, their leading scorer the past two seasons.
There are several candidates to take his spot in the lineup, but not many great options, which leads to another more complex challenge for Washington.
If the Huskies are going to rebound from their worst season since 2007-08 and snap a three-year NCAA tournament drought, they’re going to need a few players to overcome expectations and develop into stars much like Wilcox, an unheralded three-star recruit five years ago who finished his career second on the school’s all-time scoring list.
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“There’s guys on this team that are capable of stepping up and taking over a bigger role,” Wilcox said last Wednesday after a 67-61 loss to Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. “The big question is are they going to do that. I don’t know. We’ll see.
“As the year started to wind down, we saw some guys step up and gain in confidence.”
Freshman guard Nigel Williams-Goss struggled with turnovers and consistency midway in the season before finishing the past two months on a tear and being selected to the Pac-12’s all-freshman team.
“You’d imagine next year he’ll come back and be one of the better point guards in the country,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “That’s what I see.”
Sophomore guard Andrew Andrews averaged 17.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in the six games leading up to the season-ending loss to Utah, which he played after suffering from a bout of food poisoning.
“Nigel and Andrew are two guys who definitely got better as the season progressed,” Wilcox said. “Other guys are going to have to do the same thing (next season).”
And therein lies the biggest question for Washington.
The Huskies lament a disappointing season in which they compiled a 17-15 record, finished tied for eighth in the Pac-12 at 9-9 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2007. (The 2007-08 team, which finished 16-17, lost in the first round of the CBI.)
However, there’s little empirical data to suggest Washington will vastly improve next season unless players exceed expectations.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Romar said. “There’s a lot of competition out there, so we’ve got to wait and see. You’re talking about March to next October. There are guys that could be a completely different player when we come in next year.”
Williams-Goss and Andrews are the leading returning scorers, averaging 13.4 and 12.3 points. Both are penciled in as starters, while the rest of the lineup is a mystery.
Forwards Desmond Simmons and Shawn Kemp Jr. will be seniors next season. Each started at times during UW careers filled with glimpses of promise and setbacks. Simmons, despite being plagued by knee injuries, has been more consistent. Kemp regressed after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease last year.
There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the front line. Jernard Jarreau, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, is recovering from a season-ending knee injury. Seven-foot sophomore center Gilles Dierickx and 6-10 forward Tristan Etienne, who signed with UW, aren’t likely to make major contributions next season.
It’s also unclear if Robert Upshaw, a 6-11 center who sat out this season after transferring from Fresno State, will remain with the Huskies.
“Not sure,” Romar said when asked about Upshaw’s future. “That’s probably right now the last thing that I’m concerned with.”
Once again, the Huskies will lean heavily on their guards. They’re expecting junior Mike Anderson and freshmen Darin Johnson and Jahmel Taylor to compete for minutes with incoming freshman Donaven Dorsey, the Timberline High standout, and junior-college transfer Quevyn Winters, who verbally committed to UW.
No one embodies Washington’s uncertain prospects more than Johnson, a 6-5 guard who appears to be the leading candidate to replace Wilcox.
“Confidence is everything in this game,” said Wilcox, who believes Johnson can surpass him on Washington’s all-time scoring list. “I know what he’s going through. He lost his confidence for a little bit there.
“But he’s someone who can be that next great scorer if he can take that next step.”
Johnson, who averaged 5.9 points, struggled most of the season before finishing with a spectacular 16-point performance last week against Utah.
“I had my ups and down,” he said. “Inconsistent. I’ve got to come back stronger and keep getting better.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278
On Twitter @percyallen