Nov. 29, 2010
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE -- Isaiah Thomas and his Huskies are back. Back home from an intense, high-profile Maui Invitational. Back to a relatively routine non-conference season.
And back to being confident in themselves in this season of big expectations, following narrow losses in Hawai'i last week to then-No. 8 Kentucky and then-second-ranked Michigan State.
"We can play with anybody," the always head-strong Thomas said before 23rd-ranked Washington (3-2) returns to mainland action Tuesday night against Long Beach State (3-3) at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
"It's crazy that we can play like that and we can still contend with the top teams in the country," Thomas said. "And we still feel like we're one of the top teams in the country."
So don't worry about the Huskies letting down or feeling deflated when they host Long Beach Tuesday. Fox Sports Northwest cable television has the 8:07 p.m. tipoff, as does the Washington ISP Sports Network on radio. Gohuskies.com has a live, in-game chat and Gametracker stats.
The Dawgs also host Texas Tech (4-3) on Saturday and Portland on Dec. 6.
They know where they need to improve following their 74-67 loss to Kentucky in the Maui semifinals and 76-71 against Michigan State. Washington led the Spartans by 10 at halftime of the third-place game.
Coach Lorenzo Romar's practices since have focused on rebounding -- UW was out-rebounded 49-39 by Kentucky and 31-27 by Michigan State -- and on rotating better on the back side of the defense after new seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye shifts over to block yet another shot.
"We're good," Thomas promised of the Huskies' post-Maui psyche. "I was once told good players, the best players, have a short memory.
"We've moved on."
The Huskies began the season believing this was one of their most athletic, versatile and best-shooting teams since Romar arrived in 2002. And the coach didn't dampen expectations that these defending Pac-10 tournament champions could win and fulfill their status as favorites for this season's conference regular-season title, and then advance farther than a third-round exit in last spring's NCAA tournament.
Routs to begin the season past overwhelmed McNeese State (118-64), Eastern Washington (98-72) and Virginia (106-63) backed up that optimism.
But did the losses to Kentucky and Michigan State, in which the Huskies faltered down the stretch with offensive execution, free throws and defensive rebounding, change any expectation of a potentially huge season?
"It confirmed it," Romar said, calling the errors in Hawai'i "correctable."
"In spite of the scores, it gave me as head coach of this team the indication that we really could have a successful season, if we continue to get better, " he said.
"I like this team."
The coach thought defensive stopper Justin Holiday, the only Husky to score 10-plus points in each game this season, was UW's most consistent player over the three games in Maui. Holiday give Kentucky star freshman Terrence Jones fits in a 4-for-13 shooting night last week.
Romar -- plus the Wildcats, Spartans and the national television audiences that saw those games -- were particularly impressed with how N'Diaye dominated the inside against big opponents. He was especially awesome against Kentucky with five blocks and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes, and is pushing for a spot in the starting lineup.
"Aziz's performance against Kentucky, the way he did it, I don't think we've ever had a performance like that since we've been here at the University of Washington," Romar said. "The way he controlled the paint that game, the aggressiveness that he had, he was so dialed in, locked in to that game - no antics -- I was really impressed and excited.
"We played some teams with bigger front lines in Maui, and Aziz was just what the doctor ordered. He really helped."
That is why Romar and his staff sought the native of Senegal as a junior-college transfer out of the College of Southern Idaho, to combat the inside strength of national powers Washington is liable to face in the NCAA tournament.
Long Beach State's tallest starter is 6-8 T.J. Robinson, their leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. But Romar says they "are dangerous in that they can score and are all quick and athletic."
All five starters have played together for the past three seasons at Long Beach State, which beat Iowa last week in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands after a 14-point loss to Clemson to begin that tourney. The 49ers lost by 16 to nationally ranked San Diego State in their season opener.
They are coached by Dan Monson, the former coach at Gonzaga (1997-99) and Minnesota (1999-2007). Monson was offered the head job at Washington in 2002, which then-UW athletic director Barbara Hedges eventually gave to Romar after Monson declined to join the Huskies to stay with Minnesota.
Romar is sure glad Monson did that. It allowed him to return to where he played collegiately. Romar said despite an interview with Washington he didn't think he was a serious candidate -- until Hedges called to offer him the job.
Now, he never wants to leave, saying no job could ever be better. And with the tenure he's had and the status of the program he has built at UW, it appears he may never have to.
"This is about as good as it gets for me, yeah," Romar said, smiling.