March 19, 2009
BY GREGG BELL
SEATTLE - Tough to tell which was bigger: Isaiah Thomas' smile or the size of his eyes.
The looks came immediately after Washington's little freshman point guard with the huge game saw he would be starting his first NCAA Tournament inside Portland's Rose Garden this afternoon.
It's the second NBA arena Thomas will enter in two weeks. That has the Huskies' precocious top scorer dreaming of emulating Brandon Roy, the Trail Blazers' All-Star.
"Got to get my B-Roy on, yeah," Thomas said of the former All-American and Seattle native, who led the Huskies to the regional semifinals in their previous NCAA appearance in 2006.
The Huskies will have to settle for just getting their "I.T." on.
The 5-foot-8 Thomas was anxious and mistake-prone last week in the Pac-10 conference tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Now he and three other Huskies starters are in for a realization -- so say the two Washington seniors who have made it to the big dance before.
Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon say their teammates are about to learn fourth-seeded Washington's first-round game against Southeastern Conference tournament champion Mississippi State (23-12) will be unlike anything they have experienced.
"The air kind of sparkles. The floor lights shine a little brighter. It's just... different," Brockman said. "We're on the biggest stage, playing in the best games. There's not a more exciting time than March Madness."
Dentmon was more blunt.
"If you don't want to bring your 'A' game, then sit down," he said.
That proclamation prompted a fist bump and a head nod of approval from Washington coach Lorenzo Romar.
The two veterans and the coach who is leading the Huskies to their fourth NCAA Tournament since he arrived at the UW in 2002 have another realization: They know if Thomas and Dentmon bring their "A" games into the West region, the Pac-10 regular-season champions (25-8) are likely to pass their first NCAA test in three years.
Guard play is often the key to tournament games. With defensive intensity supreme, points inside are often harder to come by than tickets.
That should prove true today when the rugged Brockman will be locking arm bars inside with 6-foot-9 shot-blocker extraordinaire Jarvis Varnado. Mississippi State's SEC record holder for rejections had 165 this season after leading the nation in blocks last season.
The Huskies, who led the Pac-10 in scoring this season at 78.9 points per game, are at their freewheeling best when Romar employs a three-guard lineup by bringing hyper, 5-11 pest Venoy Overton off the bench to join Thomas and Dentmon. They dart into the lane and draw defenders to create open chances for Brockman inside or Quincy Pondexter on a wing or baseline. Or to create their own circus shots -- which Thomas has been especially good at pulling off.
At least he had been. He was 3 for 11 in a win over Washington State that ended the regular season and clinched Washington's first outright conference title since 1953. He was 5 for 14 to begin the Pac-10 tournament against Stanford, and then 6 for 15 when the Huskies lost to Arizona State on Friday.
Dentmon has been worse. He is 9 for 29 (31 percent) in those last three games, bringing his percentage for the season down to 46.5 percent. His 15.0 points per game is second on the team to Thomas' 15.4, but the 5-11 Dentmon hasn't scored more than a dozen points in a game since Feb. 26.
Yet the smallest Huskies will keep on charging, even into the Bulldogs' vaunted Varnado.
"When you go against one, you need to GO! If you are tentative at all, he becomes a better shot blocker," Romar said. "The style we play, we try to be aggressive no matter who we play.
"You can't block them all," Romar added with a smile. "At least I don't think."
The Huskies believe the Pac-10 provided them with so many varied experiences this season -- from Southern California's gimmicky man-zone defenses to the in-your-face challenges of UCLA and Washington State -- it has prepared them well for whatever the NCAA Tournament brings.
But Washington's guards haven't faced a force like Varnado while they've ventured inside this season. Taj Gibson of USC led the Pac-10 with 92 blocks -- 73 fewer than Varnado had -- and no other conference player had more than 57.
The most recent challenge reminiscent of what Varnado will bring Washington was Stanford's 7-foot twins, Robin and Brook Lopez. They graduated after last season. That was before Thomas arrived at UW from Tacoma, Wash., by way of a prep school in Connecticut -- and way before the flashy freshman entered his first NCAA tournament.
"It's a bigger stage now," Thomas said. "But we are now going to be more ready now than ever."