Oct. 15, 2008
SEATTLE (AP) -- Washington basketball has its "swagger" back.
No, not with Jon Brockman. Yugos are flashier than the rugged, 6-foot-7 senior force on the inside, who remains the program's immovable foundation.
The Huskies' new flash is in freshman guard Isaiah Thomas, a 5-foot-8 package of points, penetration and panache.
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The high-scoring, fancy-passing guard, who ripped through the Washington Class 4A state high school tournament a few years ago by averaging 41.5 points and scoring 51 points in one game, was talking on Wednesday about summer basketball camps. He said instructors tried to make the left-leaning Thomas use his right hand more on drives to the basket.
"They got on me for going left too much," he said. "But no one has ever stopped me going left yet."
Washington fans, antsy if not angered over missing out on the NCAA tournament the last two seasons after making it three consecutive times, have been eagerly waiting for Thomas to finish his year away at prep school in Connecticut. That's where he went to improve his grades and to grow up out of Curtis High School in Tacoma.
Thomas will begin filling those rampant expectations on Nov. 15 at Portland, the first time in UW coach Lorenzo Romar's six seasons at Washington the Huskies have opened on the road.
And Thomas is already embracing the hype.
"Obviously, I'm doing something good to have those expectations," he said with a straight face.
Thomas' new uniform number with the Huskies isn't exactly pedestrian, either. It's No. 2, made famous at the UW at the beginning of this decade by dynamic leader Nate Robinson, a similarly diminutive, two-time All-Pac-10 point guard now starring with the New York Knicks.
"Nate wanted me to wear it, to bring back the spirit," Thomas said, now with a huge, obviously proud smile.
Thomas is the jewel of a freshman class that includes shooting guard Elston Turner from Missouri City, Texas. Washington is counting on him to take the long-range sharpshooter role of Ryan Appleby, who graduated.
The Huskies expect with Thomas, erratic senior guard Justin Dentmon and sophomore Venoy Overton sprinting down the court and slashing to the basket, and with Turner shooting better than Appleby's slumping 39 percent from the field last season, they can finally make defenses pay for double- and triple-teaming Brockman inside.
"Teams are going to have to focus everywhere. They won't be able to pack the middle," Brockman said.
Look for these Huskies to be more of the running Dawgs like those years with Robinson and Brandon Roy, now with the Portland Trail Blazers. Roy helped lead Washington to regional rounds of consecutive NCAA tournaments in 2005 and '06. And expect less of the plodding sled dogs from the last two failed seasons.
"One thing I've noticed (already) is that we have speed and quickness that we haven't had the last couple years. That won't be a problem this year," Romar said.
Two years ago, the Huskies slowed themselves to highlight the inside, halfcourt game of 7-footer Spencer Hawes, who left after one season and is now with Sacramento Kings. Washington was out of sorts and finished 19-12, missing the postseason.
Last season, the Huskies were essentially Brockman, Appleby and many unproven kids. They finished 16-17 - their first losing season since 2002-03, Romar's first at Washington. They lost at home to Valparaiso in the first round of the lower-tier College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament.
Now, with Thomas bringing most of the new energy to the program, Washington is sensing the swagger is back.
"I expect this team to do really well. I don't know what that means," said Romar, careful not to tag NCAA tournament expectations to this bounce-back season in October. "I expect this to be a team that when we look back at the end of we will say, 'That was a fun year.'"
Having the precocious - if not brash - Thomas around seems to ensure that.