Another NCAA selection Sunday has arrived, and once again the University of Washington Huskies find themselves standing on the doorstep, the door slammed firmly against their noses.
There will be no team gathering to watch the broadcast as the field of 68 teams is revealed. No video footage of the Huskies waiting nervously to discover their fate, or of exuberant celebrations when they find out their resume was accepted.
Instead, somewhere UW coach Lorenzo Romar will look on wistfully as the brackets are filled, pondering a fifth straight year in which Washington doesn’t find itself occupying a line.
Yet despite the Huskies’ continued NCAA drought, one has to believe Romar will take a moment to smile inward, thinking about the hurricane that’s coming that will emphatically end that drought a year from now.
It’s a very real possibility, but it comes with a gigantic “if.”
Washington can not only reach the NCAA tournament next year, the Huskies can be title contenders. But only if Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray elect to return to school. Washington’s freshman stars are capable of leading the Huskies to the promised land, but only if they resist the temptation to bolt for the NBA.
While Washington’s once-promising season petered out with Thursday’s 83-77 loss to top-seeded Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, leaving the team with an all-too-familiar 18-14 record, this season offered something that was missing from the previous four disappointing campaigns:
Little was expected of the Huskies this season following last season’s collapse and the subsequent purging of the program, leaving senior guard Andrew Andrews and a recruiting class that included seven freshmen to pick up the pieces. What emerged from the ashes was a fast and athletic young team that oozed potential. Washington may not have been any more successful than previous seasons, but the Huskies were exciting, making Washington basketball something people wanted to watch again.
Chriss and Murray are the faces of the new order. But will those faces be back next season? Neither Chriss nor Murray entered college with any one-and-done hype. But their abilities, athleticism and performances were impossible to ignore. Chriss is the picture of a college power forward, with the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder from Sacramento, Calif., possessing an uncommon ability to elevate. Murray is the new-age combo guard, the 6-foot-5 Seattle native having a unique body control that allows him to wriggle through the narrowest of gaps when attacking the basket. Together they’re a walking highlight reel — Murray feeding Chriss for breathtaking alley-oop dunks in transition was the lasting image of the season.
Now the rumblings have begun about the possibility of Chriss and Murray leaving for the NBA rather than returning to Washington as sophomores. ESPN’s Chad Ford had Chriss being picked 11th in his latest mock NBA draft, while Murray went 23rd. If that happened it would erode all the hope generated this season.
There’s a school of thought that Chriss and Murray SHOULD come out this year. This year’s NBA draft is considered one of the weakest in recent memory, with a dearth of players ready to make an immediate impact on the NBA level. Therefore, teams will likely be drafting on potential, and both Chriss and Murray have plenty of that.
But they also have plenty to work on, too.
Chriss has good size for college, but he’ll need to add pounds in order to bang with NBA power forwards. He’s shown the ability to step out and hit the perimeter shot, something that’s asked ever more of power forwards in the NBA, but he lacks consistency (32 percent from three-point range). And he hasn’t mastered the art of defending yet, evidenced by his fouling out 14 times.
Meanwhile, Murray is rail thin at 170 pounds — he looks like he would snap in two trying to drive the lane against physically mature NBA interior defenders. Murray’s perimeter shot (30 percent on three-pointers) also needs to improve considerably to open up driving opportunities, and his decision making is sometimes questionable.
In short, both Chriss and Murray are young. They do things young and talented players do, such as play too fast and make rash decisions. They’re unrefined. Sure, those are things that can be improved at the pro level. But they can be improved in college, too — in a more nurturing environment.
Both Chriss and Murray have a chance to earn a paycheck next season. But what would that mean? As players in need of further seasoning there’s a good chance they’d be plying much of their trade in the D-League. What’s better, being in a minutes timeshare while playing in front of a couple thousand fans in places like Sioux Falls, S.D., or Fort Wayne, Indiana? Or starring in front of 9,000 screaming members of the Dawg Pack at Hec Edmundson Pavilion?
Washington could be a special team next season. All those freshmen will be seasoned sophomores, with five-star freshman point guard Markelle Fultz joining the mix. Visions of high-octane basketball punctuated by thunderous slams are surely swirling in every Husky fan’s head. But it only works if Chriss and Murray are leading the way.
Sunday evening the Huskies will begin preparations for the NIT, so we haven’t seen the last of Marquese Chriss or Dejounte Murray in purple and gold, even if they do decide to depart for the NBA. But to them I say, “One more year!” Come back to Washington for your sophomore seasons.
Not just for the Huskies’ sake, but for your own.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.