Dec. 18, 2009
By Matt Winter
SEATTLE -- When people think back on the 2008-09 UW men's basketball team, they will most likely remember the 26-9 record, the regular season Pac-10 championship, and the fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament. The one thing most people forget is that on November 15, 2008, the Huskies started their season with a 80-74 loss to Portland.
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"It felt like a nightmare, that's the one thing I remember," said senior captain/leading scorer/aspiring ballerina Quincy Pondexter. "We had a lot of expectations of our team that year, and we wanted to come out of the gate strong, but we slipped up. We let them catch us in a bad situation, it really hurt."
The Pilots finished the 2008-09 season 19-13 (their most wins since 1996), placed third in the West Coast Conference, and earned a bid to the inaugural CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. The Pilots' entire roster of 13 returns this season, making them one of the trendier mid-major picks early in 2009.
"Unbelievable three point shooting team, very disciplined, and they've got very good size," says Coach Romar of the team that upset him last year. "They shoot well, but they're biggest strength is that they're a senior dominated team. That team has been together for three years. Most people forget that when they were freshman and sophomores, they came in here and almost beat us."
Romar is referring to UW's narrow 67-63 win over Portland at Bank of America Arena in 2007. The team he faced in Seattle two years ago bares a very strong resemblance to the team he will face on Saturday. Nick Raivio, Ethan Niedermeyer, Kramer Knutsen, Robin Smeulders, Jared Stohl, Luke Sikma, and Tashi Ito have all been significant contributors since the 2007-08 season.
"When teams grow together, when they're seniors, that experience says a lot," Romar pointed out.
That growth has paid off for the Pilots so far this season. Their 6-3 start, which includes wins over Oregon, UCLA, and Minnesota, was enough to see them break the top 25 for the first time since the 1958-59 season.
In last year's victory, Portland was led by Smeulders' 20 points and Raivio's 19, who were able to use outside shooting to offset UW's power inside. The Huskies outrebounded the Pilots 44-31 and Brockman finished with 30 points and 14 rebounds. Romar's crew definitely showed signs of early season shakes --- they made just 3-16 three point attempts and turned the ball over 23 times.
"Last year in the Portland game we came out a little bit selfish, we didn't distribute the ball well," said sophomore forward Darnell Gant. "We were still trying to find ourselves as a team."
The question now is whether the No. 24 Huskies, losers of two out their last three, will be able to pull themselves out of the funk that has hit them of recent. UW is averaging 21.3 turnovers over their last three games (including a season-high 25 against Georgetown).
"In the last few games our turnovers are up, we aren't sharing the ball as well as we were earlier in the season," Gant explains. "We know we can't do those things against Portland. We can't keep the ball in one person's hands all the time, we need to distribute the ball, find the open man, and make the easy shots."
A big win is much needed for the struggling Huskies. After losing to Texas Tech and Georgetown --- both currently ranked in the polls --- Romar and his team need that signature win to propel them into the Pac-10 season.
"If we beat [Portland] and then come out and play good against Texas A&M and we win, then those are two key wins for us," said Gant.
After Portland and Texas A&M, only a home game against the University of San Francisco is left before the conference opener. If the Huskies have some wrinkles to iron out, Romar wants them smoothed out before the New Year's Eve showdown against Oregon State.