Pac-12 preview: the University of Washington

This is the fifth in a series previewing the Pac-12 teams

The University of Washington has been ambushed by injuries, illnesses and coaching changes the last three years. But thanks to some coaching retention, a majority of returnees and a healthy start so far this season, the Huskies might be poised to continue the momentum they had going last year.

Coach Kevin McGuff left Xavier in 2011 to take the helm at the UW, and just as suddenly last spring, he departed for the open Ohio State University job, leaving the Huskies reeling. When the University announced it was promoting assistant coach Mike Neighbors to head coach, players were elated. The retention of the other two assistants, Adia Barnes and Kevin Morrison, means continuity for the Huskies, who had climbed out of the conference cellar under the new staff. They finished 21-12 for fifth in the Pac-12.

“We didn’t have to change the culture – it was already good,” Neighbors said. “Now we’ve gone about doing things in different ways. Kevin (McGuff) and I are different personalities and do things a bit different in practice. But the goals haven’t changed: to get the team back into the NCAA Tournament, back into the top half of the Pac-12 standings, and hopefully a top four seed going into the Pac-12 Tournament.”

“The strength of the (conference) of the past few years and the trajectory that it’s on with its improvement….we think we can become an NCAA Tournament team. We kind of feel like this is year three, not year one, because so much stuff is still the same.”

The roster is virtually unchanged, as well, with starter Kristi Kingma the only major loss. The other four – junior guard Jazmine Davis (19.3 ppg), sophomore forward Talia Walton (13.6 ppg), junior guard/forward Aminah Williams (9.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and senior guard Mercedes Wetmore (6.8 ppg) – are back. So is key reserve Heather Corral (4.5 ppg), a sophomore guard.

Katie Collier will also step on to the court for the first time, after redshirting her freshman year to battle leukemia. As the disease went into remission in 2012, Collier then tore her ACL that summer. Neighbors said her battle back has inspired the entire team.

“Having Katie back impacts us every single day on the floor,” Neighbors said. “She’s impacted us off the floor last year even when she was (out). But having her out there on a daily basis, not only as an inspiration of what she’s overcome, and how hard she’s had to fight through stuff….it effects us.”

“She’s a really talented player that brings us a bit of size, and an awful lot of toughness. Sometimes people just see a six-foot-three tall blonde kid in the airport and they judge her; they don’t realize how tough she is. So having that toughness in practice has been a huge benefit. She pushes the other players inside….it’s given us a presence inside that we’ve lacked.”

Add to that are four newcomers that could help the UW immediately.

Guard Kelsey Plum of San Diego was ranked 26th in her class last year. Neighbors said she wasted no time making her presence felt at the University.

“Kelsey Plum has impacted us since the day she stepped on campus, with her work ethic and getting people in the gym,” he said. “She’s a natural leader as a freshman. She makes us really hard to guard.”

Arizona native Chantel Oshahor was the 11th-ranked forward of the 2013 class.

“Chantel Oshahar has done exactly what we hoped she would do in coming in and giving us an inside presence that can also shoot,” he said. “She continues to amaze us every day in practice with a pass or two.”

Brianna Ruiz was the 16th-ranked guard in the nation, but has re-injured her knee and is rehabilitating it. The fourth newcomer, sophomore guard Alexus Atchley, comes to the Huskies after spending her freshman year as a walk-on at Colorado.

Neighbors said the team has been going hard in practices, where they use a male practice squad. For both the team and coaches, the season can’t begin soon enough.

“We’re a little anxious to get started,” he said. “Practices have been going well and….we’re excited to see what that looks like…see how it stacks up.”

The Huskies’ pre-conference opponents include Wisconsin, Pepperdine, San Diego State and Georgia Tech. They open Pac-12 play Jan. 4, at home against Arizona State.