In 2011, Rodney Terry took over at Fresno State with a simple mandate: Make the dormant Bulldogs competitive again. Former coach Steve Cleveland had done much of the post-sanctions cleanup work already, and when he stepped into the school's athletics administration periphery, he made room for a coach who was instrumental in landing Daniel Gibson, Dexter Pittman, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and a score of other top recruits during his nine years as Rick Barnes' assistant at Texas.
The theory was pretty straightforward. Terry would apply his recruiting prowess to a program that didn't need to land top-20 guys on a regular basis -- in a state teeming with Mountain West-level talent. (Q.V.: State, San Diego.) Fresno State would shed its sanctions sluggishness. It would go to the proverbial next level.
It didn't take long for Terry to land his first bellwether. Robert Upshaw, a 7-foot local Fresno kid ranked No. 55 in the ESPN 100 and No. 13 at the power forward position, eschewed interest from a host of Pac-12 schools (and an offer from Georgetown) to play for his hometown school. Fresno State still had a long way to go, but Upshaw was a player to be built around -- a long, athletic, raw talent who needed at least a couple of years in school, enough time for the Bulldogs to improve along with him.
Which is right about where things stopped going according to plan. Upshaw missed the start of the season thanks to a knee injury. That would have been bad enough, but when he returned, he looked lost -- more raw than even the least optimistic scouts had projected. And that was when he was on the floor: Terry suspended Upshaw for team rules violations twice during the season -- the first a three-game suspension in February, the second a DNP in Fresno's season-ending MWC tournament loss to Colorado State.
In mid-August, the inevitable happened: Following another undisclosed violation, Upshaw was dismissed from the program, with nothing but a terse statement from the athletic department marking his departure.
Fortunately, it takes a lot more than that to scare college basketball coaches away. On Tuesday, Upshaw told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he had found a landing spot at Washington, where he will transfer, sit out a season, and be eligible to play in 2014-15.
For his part, Upshaw is saying all the right things:
"I had a nice visit with both Washington and Oregon," he said. "I just felt like Washington was a better fit for me as a player. I liked it there, I felt comfortable and am looking forward to a new start."
"I went through a tough period at Fresno State," Upshaw said. "I had some maturity problems and didn't focus on what was in front of me. It all made me realize that I need to focus on what's important. I love the game."
That's a good start. Whatever Upshaw did to be suspended twice and then dismissed from a school that surely would have loved to have found any reason to keep him, the fact that he recognizes that it's on him is a positive sign. (That seems pretty obvious, but you'd be surprised how many kids -- or their families, or whomever -- refuse to ever believe they're in the wrong. This is as true of kindergarten PTA meetings as it is college basketball.)
But that acknowledgement only goes so far. After all, it hasn't even been a month since Upshaw's dismissal. Maybe it was a wakeup call; maybe he really has matured in the past three weeks. But it's not like he's a 30-year-old reflecting whimsically at his wild youth. It literally just happened.
There's also the small matter of his actual performance. When he did manage to stay on the floor last season, what Upshaw produced belongs on any short list for worst offensive campaigns of the year (and maybe even the last few years). He shot 37.8 percent from the field, all of which were 2-point shots. According to Synergy scouting data, Upshaw's 63 post-up plays netted a grand total of 37 points, good for .587 points per possession and a spot in the 17th percentile (!) nationally. He turned the ball over on 18.8 percent of his touches. His offensive rating, when all was said and done, was a whopping 77.2. I'm sure there have been worse marks in recent years, but I couldn't name them.
So, why would Washington take him? Because his value isn't really as an offensive player anyway, at least not yet.
What Upshaw can do -- and his limited role last season makes tempo-adjusted stats especially helpful here -- is rebound and block shots. Upshaw grabbed 7.0 percent of available offensive rebounds and cleared 21.1 percent of opponents' misses on the defensive end. He also posted a 12.1 percent block rate. Had he played enough possessions to qualify, that mark would have ranked him among the best 15 shot-blockers in the country. It's a skill that can't be taught, and Upshaw clearly has it.
It'll be another year before we get to see the kid play at Washington, so things will probably quiet down for a while. This is one instance where the NCAA's one-year transfer delay makes complete sense: Upshaw can recede into the background, practice with the team, get his personal stuff in order, get situated on campus, and spend as much time as the bylaws allow adding some polish to an offensive game that clearly needs it.
When we check in next summer, it's entirely possible Upshaw will have worn out his welcome at UW. But if he takes advantage of the opportunity ahead of him, and becomes intimately acquainted with the Mikan Drill, it seems just as likely he can make good on all that talent.
Unfortunately for Terry and Fresno, he'll be doing it somewhere else. It's back to the drawing board -- for everyone involved.