Washington Huskies (8-3)
It's difficult to even begin discussing the Washington Huskies this season - or maybe the last two seasons - without talking about injuries.
In addition to getting redshirt senior Kristi Kingma back from an ACL injury that caused her to miss all of last year, freshman Heather Corral just scored her first points in a Huskies uniform in the final game of non-conference play, redshirt freshman Deborah Meeks is just returning from injury after sitting out last season due to an ACL injury, and star recruit Katie Collier is nursing an ACL injury. On top of all that, Kellie McCann-Smith just returned to practice after missing the first academic session for personal reasons, as reported by Jayda Evans of the Seattle Times. Last year, promising sophomore Marjorie Heard suffered a knee injury and then transferred for uncertain reasons.
Yet all of that leads to a bigger point that long-time Huskies fans probably appreciate more as the team jumped out to a 6-2 record, the best in program history since the 2002-03 season: second-year coach Kevin McGuff has been the best thing that has happened to the program in some time. Although he has yet to even coach a full roster in his short time at UW - last year, his first season, was without Kingma and this season was described above - he helped the Huskies make their first "traditional tournament appearance" since 2007 with a WNIT run last season.
So there's obviously plenty for Huskies fans to be excited about for the future, but how strong is this team right now?
Four Factors statistics for the Washington Huskies during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for the Washington Huskies during non-conference play.
Narrative description: A strong defensive team that can slow games down and force opponents into turnovers and missed shots, but are susceptible to giving up second chance points. They shot threes at the highest rate in the conference during non-conference play, which gives their shooting efficiency a considerable boost.
SOS: 49.93 (173rd nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: vs. Santa Barbara, at Long Beach State
MVP: Aminah Williams, F (6'0", So., 15.33 MVP)
While fellow sophomore Jazmine Davis gets the lion share of attention from the Huskies, fellow sophomore Aminah Williams has been vital to this team's success so far.
On a team that tends to get outrebounded by opponents, Williams' value begins with her ability to keep opponents off the boards: Williams' outstanding 21.51% defensive rebounding percentage leads the team by a wide margin. But she also leads the team in steals (2.9 per game). Although she might get overlooked because she really isn't much of a scorer (13.23% usage rate, which Ken Pomeroy describes as "nearly invisible"), she is - for what it's worth - the team's most efficient scorer. And that probably sums up Williams' value to this team: she might not do the things that show up immediately on the scoreboard, but does little to hurt the team and does things that a team needs to win games.
- The Huskies biggest strength in non-conference play was their turnover differential, which is a pretty helpful strength to have as a small team that doesn't shoot all that well.
- 3-point shooting is another significant strength that has helped the Huskies overcome a major weakness: shooting efficiency. The Huskies were 11th in field goal percentage among Pac-12 teams in non-conference play at 35.7%. But in making a conference-high 85 3-point shots, they boosted their effective field goal percentage over 40%.
- Rebounding is a major problem for the Huskies and one that they just have to live with as a small team, which is why it made sense for McGuff to begin the season thinking that they'd win by running. Obviously, they are 8-3 with that weakness - which means one could reasonably assume that they can win without rebounding - but in a conference with a few teams that rebound quite well, this could end up being a consistent problem during conference play.
- Williams is really the only reliable offensive rebounder in the rotation at all. As the "lone rebounder" on a team that struggles to rebound, she's valuable primarily because they can't get what she offers from anyone else on the team. If she were to find herself in foul trouble for whatever reason, the Huskies would be in even more trouble on the boards.
- When they're not hitting threes, the Huskies are going to struggle to win. If there's a pattern among their losses, it's poor 3-point shooting: in 3 of the 5 games which they shot under 30% they lost. In the other two - against the Pepperdine Waves and Idaho Vandals - they managed to dominate the rebounding battle.
- Depth is not a strength for this team. There's more balance among the team's top five players than some other teams, but after that they haven't gotten much production. Heather Corral's return to action in late-December will certainly help a bit, but she'll be adjusting to both the college game and getting back from injury during conference play.
X-Factor: Heather Corral, F (6'1", Fr.)
Unlike some of her teammates, Corral is not coming directly off something as debilitating as an ACL injury: though she'll obviously have to shake off some rust and adjust to the college game, it's reasonable to expect that she'll contribute at some point during the Pac-12 season. But how much and what exactly?
Although Corral was billed as a longer and more defensively-inclined version of her sister in high school, she might ultimately fill a very similar role in the near-term: as a shooter. While it's unlikely that someone coming into the middle of the season off of injury will be a major difference-maker, adding another shooter to a team that has struggled with shooting efficiency could end up being significant.
Key question: Can they overcome their lacking size and rebounding to crack the top six in the conference?
Washington finished seventh in the conference last season, was picked seventh in the preseason media poll, and entered conference play ranked seventh based on Real Time RPI's power rankings. It sort of embodies the difficulty the team has had in cracking the top of the conference, whether top six or top five, over the past few years.
The number of players adjusting from injury and their rebounding struggles figure to keep them from making that leap this season, but that doesn't mean all is lost - they have much brighter days ahead in the future once these young players have time to gel into a unit.