There’s no question senior point guard Quade Green is the Huskies’ best player considering he’s their top scorer who has led them in points in more than half of their games.
Meanwhile, Jamal Bey, a versatile wing, appears to be the most talented and Erik Stevenson, a dynamic perimeter shooter, has been the most consistent offensive weapon the past four weeks.
However, the Washington men’s basketball team’s fate hinges on redshirt sophomore forward Nate Roberts, who is arguably the most important Husky considering UW’s dearth of big men.
“He brings a ton of energy,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “He’s our best offensive rebounder. He gets a lot of extra possessions. He’s one of the leaders on the team and when you lose him you don’t have that leadership on the court.”
Washington’s 3-12 overall and 2-8 Pac-12 records notwithstanding, it’s been a difficult season for Roberts, whose predecessors Isaiah Stewart and Noah Dickerson garnered all-Pac-12 first-team honors while leading UW’s offensive attack.
Roberts, who sat out as a freshman and played sparingly last season, is an active and athletic rebounder who ranks sixth in the Pac-12 with 6.2 rebounds per game.
Still, the square-shouldered 6-foot-11, 245-pound Washington, D.C. native, slowly is developing as an offensive threat who averages 5.6 points per game.
It’s curious why Roberts ranks seventh on UW with 59 field-goal attempts (less than four shots per game) when he’s third among Huskies with at 10 games with a 54.2 field goal percentage.
“I can’t control where the ball goes or who it gets to,” Roberts said weeks ago when asked why he doesn’t get more shot attempts. “I’m not a point guard. I’ve never been a point guard so I really can’t control that.
“Sometimes when the time is right to assert myself when I have a mismatch or if I have an advantage over the offense, then that’s what I’ll do. But at the end of the day, it’s all about winning for me. If I shoot two shots or 20 shots, as long as we come out with a win, I’m going to be satisfied. I’ve always been a team guy and I’ll forever be a team guy.”
At the moment, Hopkins isn’t overly concerned about Roberts’ offensive production, but he desperately needs more at the other end of the court where the chiseled big man anchors UW’s 2-3 zone defense.
Too often this season, Roberts has been hampered with early foul trouble as he was Sunday when he played just three minutes in the first half and 17 total during a 77-62 defeat against Washington State.
Roberts’ absence allowed the Cougars to exploit the Huskies’ soft interior defense. WSU outscored UW 42-22 in the paint and enjoyed a 48-28 rebounding disparity.
“We got to do a better job protecting him,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been doing a little more of a matchup (defense) at some points where he gets into a one-on-one situations and we got to do a better job of figuring out how we can help him so we put him in less chances of getting stupid fouls that get him on the bench. And then he’s got to be more disciplined in his approach and play the most disciplined type of defense that he can without fouling for sure.”
Roberts, who averages just 0.5 blocks per game, has collected at least four fouls in seven games, including three times in the past four outings.
When Roberts is compromised with foul trouble, it becomes a “hard calculation” for Hopkins who is then forced to rely on makeshift four-guard lineups featuring 7-4 reserve center Riley Sorn in the middle.
Senior forward Hameir Wright tallied a season-low nine minutes Sunday due to an injured thumb while redshirt sophomore forward J’Raan Brooks – UW’s fourth player who is 6-9 or taller – hasn’t played in the past four games.
“You’re put at a disadvantage,” Hopkins said when asked about losing Roberts to foul trouble. “We need to protect Nate. We need to have him in the game. He needs to play at least 20 to 25 minutes a game.”
Even with Roberts, the Huskies have been a dismal rebounding team that’s forced Hopkins to tweak the defense in recent weeks to help them on the glass.
Still, Washington ranks last in the Pac-12 in rebounding differential (-9.6) and allows opponents a league high 40.9 rebounds per game.
The Huskies’ rebounding troubles is a point of emphasis heading into the 6 p.m. matchup Thursday at Oregon State and Warith Alatishe, who leads the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds per game (3.3).
“We got to do a better job,” Hopkins said. “That’s just a big focus on what we have to do. Very similar to the last game. We got to defensive rebound and we can’t put them on the foul line. That’s going to be a non-negotiable.”
Alatishe, a 6-7 junior forward who transferred from Nicholls State, ranks second in the Pac-12 with 8.2 rebounds and averages 8.7 points.
Led by senior guard Ethan Thompson (16.3 points per game), who has tormented the Huskies in the past, Oregon State (8-7, 4-5) fell to seventh in the Pac-12 standings after a pair of defeats last week in Los Angeles to USC and UCLA.
The Huskies are 0-8 on the road and have allowed a league-worst 88.6 points in Pac-12 games away from home.
“They’re just waiting for that defense to click in and hopefully that comes some time after Thursday,” OSU coach Wayne Tinkle said. “They’ve been through a lot and the admirable thing is how Coach Hopkins has got those guys believing day in and day out. They’re still battling.
“They’re going to knock some teams off because they got talent and he’s a heck of a coach. We just got to make sure we do what we need to do and let them hopefully get in their groove somewhere down the road.”