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Gregg Bell Unleashed: Early Losses Puts Chip on Huskies' Shoulders
Release: 12/22/2010
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Dec. 22, 2010

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Lorenzo<!> Romar Monday Press Conference

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

SEATTLE - Just before they go off on a mini break for Christmas, Huskies hoops has received an unexpected gift.

They already had more versatility and scoring than they'd had in any of Lorenzo Romar's previous eight seasons as Washington's coach.

They already had the proven experience of four starters returning from a team that won last spring's Pac-10 tournament championship and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs.

Now the Huskies, 7-3 entering Wednesday night's nonconference finale against Nevada (3-8) at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, have the one thing they'd lacked throughout their heady preseason.

A chip on their shoulders.

"We're working every day to get out our anger, with that chip on our shoulder," said leading scorer Isaiah Thomas, who has so much drive he's perhaps the one Husky who doesn't need any more fuel.

Sure, the Huskies have boat raced every, overmatched opponent at Hec Ed so far. The likes of McNeese State, Eastern Washington, Long Beach State and San Francisco have gone down by an average of 31 points per game, and UW has topped 100 points three times at home.

Add the 106-63 blitz of Virginia that started the Maui Invitational last month, and the Dawgs need to reach the century mark once more to tie the 2004-05 team `s school record for scoring 100 points in a season. That team, with Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Tre Simmons and Brandon Roy, was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But three losses on national television -- in Maui to Kentucky and Michigan State, then at Texas A&M -- have much of college basketball doubting the Huskies. Many see the Dawgs as vulnerable away from friendly, sometimes frenzied Hec Ed.

I say the losses will prove to be a decisive plus, the push that has given this formerly cruising, confident and loaded team the one thing they lacked.

"I mean, it's in the back of your mind that people say we're not as good," Thomas said.

Yes, the previously cruising Huskies--who spent all summer and fall hearing talk of the Final Four -- now have that motivation, that "chip" just about every team since the first Greek Olympics has sought as a unifying cause.

And it's arrived just in time for the real season that begins Dec. 29 at USC.

"I'm glad it's happening now," Thomas said. "Because when Pac-10 starts it's a whole new season. That's when it matters."

The prodigious tweeter has even posted on his Twitter page that an 18-0 conference season remains the goal.

"There has to be (a chip)," he said. "If there's not, then we have a problem."

The Huskies have Thomas, on watch lists for various national player-of-the-year awards, scoring 15 points per game and taking care of the ball with the conference's fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio. Yet there is a belief the junior guard has had a disappointing season so far.

That's because of those three losses.

People remember his 8-for-25 shooting from the field and poor free-throw shooting on consecutive days in Maui last month, in Washington's 74-67 loss to then-No. 8 Kentucky and the 76-71 defeat to then-second ranked Michigan State. They remember Thomas missed an open 15-footer near the end of that latter loss to the Spartans that could have changed the result.

They remember he stole the ball with 5 seconds left and UW down 1 on Dec. 11 at Texas A&M -- then criticized the 5-foot-8 dynamo for not passing to open teammates before his shot was blocked at the buzzer. That sloppy loss was the Huskies' worst-played game this season, when they lacked offensive patience, rebounding or poise.

Romar can't believe Thomas, who scored more points (1,134) than any previous player in school history through their first two seasons, is getting knocked by any one for anything.

"I'm very, very confident with the ball in Isaiah Thomas' hands at the end of the game," the coach said, laughing almost to the point of scoffing. "It's amazing -- it's AMAZING: He gets his shot blocked at the end of the game and people question whether he should have the ball.

"Are people crazy?"

It's just more fuel for Thomas' fire, which will burn brightest once conference play begins in Los Angeles next week.

"I'm practicing, working every day to get ready for USC," he said, hinting of a breakout in L.A.

There was another, overlooked benefit to that loss at Texas A&M, which dropped the Huskies out of the national rankings for the first time this season. It revealed redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox as a primary option besides Thomas to win games at the end. As advertised, his 3-point shooting has been above 50 percent and among the nation's leaders for most of his UW debut season.

Romar called timeout during Washington's final, planned possession at A&M and called for Wilcox to run off a screen set by Matthew Bryan-Amaning, receive a pass from Thomas on the deep wing and launch the go-ahead score. Thomas and the Huskies were so surprised with the coach choosing Wilcox to win it, Romar had to call a second time out to get everyone's heads wrapped around the play.

The play worked -- until Wilcox missed the open shot off the rim.

While admitting he wants those shots, Thomas said "we're a stronger team" because of that play.

These Huskies are also stronger now because of the emergence of Thomas' starting partner at guard, Abdul Gaddy. Gaddy spent countless hours this summer in Tacoma working out with Thomas, not just on his shot but on his psyche, following his disappointing freshman season.

He also got in better shape and got stronger, physically as well as mentally. He is now far more aggressive driving into the lane offensively, and far more stout defensively. He is averaging 10.2 points per game, up from 3.9 last season. He surpassed his 3-point shooting production for all of last season with four in the first two games this season.

As a hesitant freshman, he had 81 assists and 62 turnovers. This season, he has 42 assists and just 13 turnovers, the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Pac-10. Presto! Thomas now has a partner to create and pressure a defense from the outside.

How much more forceful is Gaddy? Saturday night against San Francisco, he took a pass in the lane and slammed the ball down with a right-hand slam, his first collegiate dunk.

"Coach was like, `Where'd that come from?'" Gaddy said, smiling.

A final reason not to fret about these Huskies: They appear to have found a fix for their problems with rebounding -- though Pac-10 play will be the true test of that.

After watching his Huskies get hammered on the boards in all three of their losses, Romar decided to pair the 6-9 Bryan-Amaning with new 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye in the starting lineup. Bryan-Amaning, one of UW's three seniors along with Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton, had been coming off the bench in the previous four games, after N'Diaye had wowed Romar in Maui with his dominance and poise inside.

With the two biggest Huskies starting together, UW had 40 rebounds against San Francisco last weekend, its most since the season opener. Bryan-Amaning had four of the Huskies' 10 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes.

The Pac-10 now has size along with speed to deal with when playing the racing Dawgs. Romar said heading into Wednesday's Nevada game he will stick with the new, big lineup for a while. In fact, the first upcoming opponent he can see that might be too quick and perimeter-oriented to start MBA and N'Diaye against is Arizona. The Huskies don't play the Wildcats until Jan. 20, seven games into the conference schedule.

That chip on the shoulders of these retooled Huskies? It might have turned into a catapult to a conference crown by then.

About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on each Wednesday.

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