Feb. 18, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
TUCSON, Ariz. - The Huskies walked into McKale Center for practice, past signs saying Saturday's nationally televised showdown is sold out. And past signs asking fans of the Pac-10's leading team to wear only white inside the 14,545 arena for the latest renewal of Dawgs-versus-`Cats.
Coach Lorenzo Romar and his assistants were breaking down game tapes of Arizona on laptop computers - not just here but minutes after Thursday night's win at Arizona State, on the bus ride down Interstate 10.
Yeah, this one is huge. And Romar isn't trying to trick his guys into thinking otherwise.
"That's one of those can't-kid-the-kid deals. Everyone knows this is a big game," Romar said on the Wildcats' court after Friday's practice. "The key is you can't change your approach.
"We are looking forward to a fun challenge. It's going to be a high-level basketball game."
Huskies star Isaiah Thomas had a huge grin anticipating Saturday's 3 p.m. Pacific time tipoff, which ESPN will show, the Washington IMG College radio network will carry and we will track with a live chat from courtside, statistics and streaming audio here at GoHuskies.com.
"Yeah. ESPN. A `white out.' Bright lights. This is what you play for," said Thomas, a candidate for national player and point guard of the year. "I can't wait."
To give even more definition to the matchup, the Huskies will be in their all-black jerseys.
Later Friday night, Romar was to meet with the team at their campus hotel to review more tape of the Wildcats and give them a final talk. The subject: This is the last chance for Washington (18-7, 10-4 Pac-10) to win the regular-season conference title outright, something it has done just once in 57 years.
The veteran of nine seasons at UW leaves game day free of speeches, more to focus on the task at hand.
This task will be about as easy as swallowing cactus needles - which means a win would be as big as the Huskies have had in many, many regular seasons.
No. 12 Arizona (22-5, 11-2) is 14-0 inside their loud home, where the Huskies haven't won since 2006. And U of A hoops has long been the biggest show from Nogales to Yuma and up to Phoenix in these parts. So, yes, the place will be rockin'.
The Wildcats have a leading candidate for the Pac-10's player of the year in versatile big man Derrick Williams, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds - about his season averages - in UW's 85-68 win over the Wildcats in Seattle on Jan. 20. That is Arizona's only loss in 10 games since Jan. 6.
Asked for the best way to control Williams, Romar joked "Pretty much lock him up in a closet somewhere and throw away the key."
The Huskies are at less than full strength. Already without point guard Abdul Gaddy for the rest of the season, UW will be without injured starting guard Scott Suggs Saturday. He sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee colliding with Thomas 3 minutes into the win at Arizona State. Romar said Suggs likely won't play Tuesday at Seattle University or Sunday at home against Washington State.
Venoy Overton will make his fourth start of the season in place of Suggs, with sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox one of the first off the bench following his 16-point night Thursday. Romar is opting for the senior Overton's experience playing inside raucous McKale plus his season-best play the last three games.
Suggs' injury leaves Washington essentially with eight available players Saturday. That excludes Antoine Hosley, a freshman walkon who rarely plays, Brendan Sherrer, another walkon who didn't make the trip because of a staph infection and redshirting freshman Desmond Simmons, who had preseason knee surgery.
The Huskies were forced to use team manager Kegan Bone - nephew of WSU coach Ken Bone - to practice 5-on-5 Friday while Suggs sat and watched.
The 6-6 Suggs, whose entrance into the lineup nine games ago coincided with Thomas moving to point guard and playing the best basketball of his three-year career, will be re-evaluated after the team returns home Sunday.
Suggs told GoHuskies.com Thursday the injury feels worse than when he sprained the same knee at the Maui Invitational in November. He missed one game then and said it took about six days for the knee to feel better. Romar said there are other signs Suggs could return for the Pac-10 tournament that begins March 9, if not before.
Romar thinks the Huskies go into Saturday's showdown playing, as he and his team often say, "the right way" again, as evidenced by three consecutive wins by double digits over California, Stanford and Arizona State. The man-to-man defense has been far more aggressive than it was during the out-of-nowhere, three-game losing streak what immediately preceded this improvement. And the offense is getting the ball inside to Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye more.
"We're playing at the level we should be playing at," Romar said on the eve of his ninth career game inside McKale Center as a head coach.
"I think we're headed back to the level where we were before."