Sometimes, in basketball, talent is the ultimate elixir. Sometimes, despite the disarray surrounding a team, the uber-gifted can be the difference.
Through 11 Pac-12 games, it is quite possible Washington is in the midst of its most disappointing hoops season to date. A year after winning the conference, the Huskies (12-12, 2-9) are in last place by a good two games.
It doesn’t have the look of something that can be salvaged — unless, of course, those freshman phenoms unleash every aspect of their God-given powers.
Not before this season have the Huskies landed two of the top-10 ranked high school players in the country. But when coach Mike Hopkins got commitments from big man Isaiah Stewart and wing Jaden McDaniels, it spawned fantasies in every Dawg die-hard’s head.
Two potential lottery picks mixed with Nahziah Carter and other heralded returners? Might the Final Four be in their future?
That possibility looked a lot less remote when the Huskies beat current No. 1 Baylor in their opener in November. Perhaps losing its five leading minute-getters from the previous season wouldn’t be as crippling as some feared.
But now, after losing point guard Quade Green to academic ineligibility, the Huskies are stuck in a six-game skid that seemed unfathomable a month earlier.
Can they be saved? Probably not. But if they can be, it will be because those two future first-round draft picks had a divine stretch.
Some might scoff at that idea, and such a scoff is understandable. Though Stewart has been dynamic, McDaniels has been a model of inconsistency. In 10 conference contests, Jaden has had six points or fewer four times — and all of them came after games in which he scored at least 10.
It’s been as up-and-down as it gets, but McDaniels is going to have to be all Dr. Jekyll if he wants to save Washington’s hide.
I would imagine the common thought is that Washington has to win the Pac-12 Tournament in order to make the Big Dance. This might be correct. But if they are able to win out in regular-season play, then win one game in Vegas, they’d have 20 wins and a victory over the school currently seen as the best in the country.
That’s unlikely but not unthinkable — especially with players of Stewart and McDaniels’ capabilities.
Stewart is seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring (17.4 ppg), fifth in rebounds (8.7) and third in blocks (2.0). If Washington was even competitive through the first 11 games of league play, he’d be a strong contender of Conference Player of the Year.
McDaniels’ numbers (12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) haven’t been as resounding — and his .396 field-goal percentage is disappointing. But his upside is why you won’t be able to find a mock draft that doesn’t have him going in the first half of the first round.
Just look at the totals Jaden put up against Baylor and Gonzaga, the top two teams in the country. He had 18 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks while shooting 50% vs. the Bears, and 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists while shooting 60% vs. the Zags. He can excel against anyone.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to put the season on two men so young and inexperienced. But we’ve seen first-year players carry teams to Final Fours and national titles in the past.
Is it crazy to think these two can dominate these final regular-season games and launch UW right back into NCAA Tournament contention?
There aren’t many sports in which a team can simply lean on their most talented players.
Quarterbacks don’t play defense, baseball stars are just 1/9 of their squad’s offense, and hockey players are only on the ice about a third of the time.
Hoops is different, though. A couple guys get going, and the other team is gone.
The Huskies may be in the midst of a skid that nobody saw coming. But they have the talent for a winning streak nobody sees coming, either.