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Five Preseason Questions: How can Washington build off last season?

During the University of Washington's media day last week, coach Tia Jackson noted that her team is looking to build off the way they finished last season.

"What we're hoping to do right now is build off of last year," said Jackson. "Winning four of our last six games last year and getting 65% of our players back in points, rebounds and assists."

Jackson believes this team can finish in the top half of the conference this season despite losing major contributors in Sara Mosiman, Laura McLellan, and Sami Whitcomb. She pointed to the value of last season's late success as the reason: it gives them experience with success that will hopefully help them as they seek to establish their identity more quickly this season.

But looking back on last season, perhaps the more interesting thing was that they exceeded last place expectations despite quite a few injuries, including the mid-season shin surgery that forced starting guard Sara Mosiman to miss half of the season. Nobody except UW coaches and players honestly believed the team would finish much above last and there was little statistical evidence to predict their improvement during conference play. Yet something clicked for the team during their long road-trip that ended their non-conference schedule and they started conference play with some of their best performances of the season, winning four of their first five conference games.

So a major lesson from last season is that there are certainly some things that aren't easily explained or predicted by statistics, as Jackson mentioned a few times during media day. Nevertheless, last season's conference statistics do describe something that is relevant to the team's prospects this coming season: the team saw significant increases in statistical contributions from returners Kristi Kingma, Sarah Morton, and Mollie Williams. The improvement of those three might be the best starting point for looking at the coming season for the Huskies.

1. Will the Huskies' big three be able to carry this team to continued success?

It's no secret that Whitcomb was the team's leader last season as the team relied quite heavily on her to win games. But rather than searching for a direct replacement this season, filling that leadership void on the court will more likely be a collective effort.

"I think you're going to see a trio with Sarah Morton, Kristi, and Regina really making each other better out there," said Jackson. "I really think you're going to see those three collectively improving every aspect of their game."

On paper that appears to be strong inside-outside trio, particularly if key improvements from Kingma and Morton coincide with more consistently establishing Rogers in the post.

Morton more than doubled her three point percentage during conference and post-season play, moving from 14.28% in non-conference play to 31.25% after the new year. Kingma didn't have the same kind of huge mid-season improvement, but she did see about a 5% improvement in both her three point shooting and overall shooting from the field compared to her freshman year. While logic might dictate a decrease in shooting percentage with an increased scoring burden as the highest scoring holdover from last season (9.41 ppg), it would be just as reasonable to assume that her continued development as a player would lead to improved scoring efficiency.

But the biggest uncertainty among this trio might be Rogers, who has yet to reach her potential for at least two reasons. Physically, she's has had to struggle through illness that has only exacerbated her conditioning problems. Strategically, the Huskies struggled to keep her consistently involved in the offense and that wasn't just a matter of minutes as described repeatedly last season - it was a matter of the perimeter players getting accustomed to playing with a post presence. Jackson said during media day that Rogers is in much better shape this season and it will obviously be interesting to see how that translates into performance.

The issue with integrating Rogers last year was translating theory into action and that's probably the key to the effectiveness of this trio in leading their team as well - if all three of them play at max potential, this could be a much more potent team than last season. However, the tougher adjustment might be figuring out what to do when things breakdown - last season, the team relied heavily on Whitcomb to make things happen when the defense shut their other options down. What is not immediately obvious this season is where that go-to player is without Whitcomb.

2. How efficiently can Kingma and Morton handle the ball in the backcourt?

Another focal point for Kingma and Morton as the assumed starting backcourt is ball control, particularly if building off the end of their season is the focal point. The common thread between all four of those late season wins is that they managed to win the battle of turnover percentage differential, partially by forcing more turnovers than usual but also by getting their turnover percentages under 20% in the second halves.

But one of the most significant changes this season is that they lost three senior perimeter players to aid in ball handling responsibilities. Whitcomb came into the season having worked on her ball skills to create more efficiently and Mosiman was another experienced ball handler on the perimeter. In addition, they had Christina Rozier off the bench as another experienced option off the bench. Regardless of how well that set of players handled the ball, the reality of this season is that a different set of players will be responsible for ball handling duties.

Statistically, Kingma was the best ball handler on the team during conference play with a team-low turnover ratio of 13% and an assist ratio of 14.29% for the second highest pure point rating on the team (-1.63). So although she has developed a reputation as a shooter with her smooth stroke, her ball handling will be essential. Nevertheless, the focal point for ball handling improvement will be the point guard.

3. How much more efficient can Morton become as a ball handler?

Morton did improve her turnover ratio during conference play, but it was still over 25% compared to her assist ratio of 21.5%. Last off-season, they talked a lot about adding strength to help her become more of a "north-south" point guard as opposed to an "east-west" point guard. But with increased minutes as the starting point guard, her turnovers increased while her assists didn't. Her growth as a starter this season will be critical to the team's success whether they try to play an uptempo game or get the ball into Rogers on the block.

4. Can they maintain the rebounding advantage they established at the end of the season?

The other turnaround in those last four wins was the team's offensive rebounding percentage, a battle they managed to win down the stretch. While Whitcomb had the highest rebounding average on the team and Laura McLellan was among their top defensive rebounders, the team still has their best rebounders by percentage in Regina Rogers (team-high 10.44% offensive rebounding percentage in conference play), Mollie Williams (second-best offensive rebounding percentage at 10.11%) and Mackenzie Argens (team-high defensive rebounding percentage at 14.55%).

"We want to get up and down the floor so I think you're gonna see tremendous growth on the rebounding," said Jackson.

If she'd like the team to run more and obviously rebounding will be a part of that. However, if the lesson from last year is that their rebounding was a team effort, then the key will be to find other players to fill in the blanks.

5. What will the newcomers offer?

What should be evident given what the team lost is that they will need to get contributions from many of their newcomers. Based on Jackson's comments, they'll be getting a variety of contributions from their newcomers, with particularly strong praise going to Marjorie Herd.

"She is what I refer to as our Jon Brockman," said Jackson, repeating something she told Herd in the recruiting process. "She's an undersized post player that is extremely physical. I don't care what shape or size you come in, she's going to give you something you ain't gonna like. And that's just the bottom line."

With that and Ashley Moore being mentioned as "one of our most aggressive offensive rebounders from that guard position" as well as Mercedes Wetmore apparently performing well in practice, any one of them could be rotation contributors.

With so many question marks floating around this team, perhaps there are two ways to look at things: either they have a long way to go before they gel or they have a tremendous opportunity for growth.