C.J. Wilcox arrived a few minutes early for a Monday morning photo shoot inside a near empty Alaska Airlines Arena.
Having earned a sociology degree at Washington, the fifth-year senior is required to take a few graduate classes to retain his NCAA eligibility.
But mostly he fills his days with hours of basketball, including shooting drills in the morning, weight lifting and conditioning in the afternoon, followed by practice with the Huskies later in the day.
“I guess this kind of routine will get me ready for the NBA when you don’t have to worry about class and all there is is basketball,” he said, jokingly.
Wilcox considered entering the NBA draft in June, but returned to school partly because of a bothersome stress fracture in his left foot that required surgery in May and months of rehabilitation.
It might seem as if Wilcox has one eye on a future professional playing career, but less than a week before Sunday’s season opener against Seattle University he swears he’s focused on his final season at Washington.
“This is my team,” he said. “I have to make sure I get these guys back to the NCAA tournament and we can try to do some special things.
“We have captains, but I feel like everyone is looking at me to be that lone leader. If we lose a game, it’s going to be on me. If we win a game, it’ll be because I did this or did that. More of the pressure and more of the blame will be put on me, so I feel like I need to take more responsibility.”
After years of reluctance, Wilcox is finally ready to claim ownership of the Huskies.
Admittedly, he’s been more comfortable in an ensemble cast that has included future NBA players Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten Jr. and Justin Holiday.
But now they’re gone and Wilcox is the lone holdover to the Huskies’ last great run when they made three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
“He is a guy that can definitely point the way because he knows what it took for those teams to be successful,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “When you’re on your way out as a fifth-year senior, there’s a certain way you want to leave. And he wants to leave the right way.”
Wilcox, who turns 23 in December, almost sounds nostalgic when he talks about Washington’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2011.
“It’s just so exciting,” he said. “It’s an experience I feel every college basketball player should experience. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s really what you work all year for and to not be able to make it these last couple of years — some of the guys don’t know what it’s like.
“They want to get there, but they don’t know what it’s like to be there. I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to play in that tournament.”
To return to the Big Dance, Washington, which finished 18-16 last season, will need to overcome modest expectations. The Huskies were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 in a preseason media poll.
Romar likens Wilcox to former Huskies great Jon Brockman, who made the NCAA tournament as a freshman and senior.
“I remember how Jon felt and it was like he said, ‘No one is going to mess this up for me,’ “ Romar said. “That’s how C.J. is approaching this year.”
Romar said Wilcox has quietly positioned himself for a breakout season.
“C.J. Wilcox is under the radar. … I don’t think people understand how good of a basketball player he is,” Romar said. “The last time you heard me say that was about Brandon Roy going into his senior year.”
Maybe so, but Wilcox surely isn’t sneaking up on anyone.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard averaged 16.8 points last season, which ranked sixth in the Pac-12. He led Washington in average minutes played (34.8), 3-pointers (201), free throws (93) and steals (37). He was second in blocked shots (35) and third in assists (65).
Washington added fifth-year senior Perris Blackwell, a 6-9, 275-pound forward who transferred from San Francisco, where he averaged 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds as an All-West Coast Conference honorable-mention selection in the 2011-12 season.
Touted freshman Nigel Williams-Goss and redshirt sophomore Andrew Andrews will likely start alongside Wilcox in the backcourt while redshirt sophomore Jernard Jarreau and junior Desmond Simmons are competing for the final open spot in the lineup.