Nov. 10, 2006
SEATTLE - The players might need directions to Bank of America Arena for the home opener.
Their inexperience isn't that extreme, but a youth movement has definitely swept through the Washington men's basketball program. After relying on a core of veteran players to lead his Huskies to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances for the first time in school history, Coach Lorenzo Romar now counts on a bevy of underclassmen to sustain that success.
"This is the youngest team I've ever coached," exclaimed Romar. "We're going to have to get real old, real quick."
Despite their unfamiliarity with college basketball, all of the young pups possess pure prep pedigrees.
Heading the pack of returning youngsters is a pair of sophomore starters. Both of them were named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team in 2006.
Those returning starters are among nine underclassmen on the 13-player active roster.
Romar begins his fifth year with the Washington men's basketball team. The former UW player produced impressive results in his first four seasons, elevating Washington from a program that endured four consecutive losing seasons to national rankings in 2005 and 2006.
In 2005, the team tied a 68-year-old UW record with 29 wins, won its first Pac-10 Tournament championship and received the only No. 1 seed in school history. Last year, the Huskies posted a 26-7 record and made their first-ever consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16.
Despite the departure of a talented cadre of players that compiled those accolades, it's not like Romar is starting over. This year's turnover in personnel certainly can't be compared to his arrival for the 2002-03 season even though both teams had few veterans.
"It will be different because last time guys were learning us and we were learning them. We were all learning the system," Romar remarked of his first, inexperienced Husky squad. "Now these guys, even the young guys coming in, know how things work around here. They understand there is a certain culture that has been established."
That culture was initiated by reigning NBA Slam Dunk champion Nate Robinson (Knicks), who was selected in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft. Last year's stellar senior class continued the tradition, led by 2006 Draft picks Brandon Roy (Trailblazers) and Bobby Jones (76ers).
"We have been very fortunate to have participated in three consecutive NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s. When that happens, the result is usually that players are going to get drafted and go to the NBA, because if you didn't have players of that caliber you probably wouldn't be winning those types of games," Romar said. "If we are able to sustain the level that we are at, then those types of things will continue to happen. So I think that is a good thing."
The talent pool has been replenished with back-to-back recruiting classes that were ranked among the nation's best. Each class featured a McDonald's All-American who also topped the annual Best in the West poll.
The Scout.com website touted Washington's as the third-best recruiting class in the country with all four signees rated among the top-100 prep seniors. UW is projected with the best signing class among Pac-10 schools for the second straight season.
Heading the list of impact freshman is 7-foot center Spencer Hawes, a McDonald's All-American from Seattle Prep (Wash.) High School. He was the top vote-getter in the annual Best in the West poll compiled by the Long Beach Press-Telegram. All-Star Sports labeled Hawes as the No. 2 high school player in the class of 2006, the top signee by any Pac-10 school.
"We are very fortunate to have who we feel is arguably the best big man in America at this level," Romar said. "He is not only talented, but he has a lot of toughness. We think he embodies everything that Husky basketball is all about."
Hawes is the son of former Husky basketball player Jeff Hawes. His uncle, Steve Hawes, was a two-time All-American and Husky Hall of Fame inductee who played 10 seasons in the NBA.
The Huskies signed another relative of a former NBA player in Quincy Pondexter whose uncle, Cliff, played three seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Pondexter was listed fifth in the Best in the West ratings. The 6-foot-6 forward ranked No. 27 in the Scout.com national rankings.
"The timing is great to add Quincy to our program. He already is one of the top 30 or so players in the country, but yet has a tremendous upside," Romar remarked. "We feel he is tailor-made to play in our system."
Completing the recruiting class were 6-3 guard Adrian Oliver and 6-7 forward Phil Nelson. Oliver was listed No. 64 nationally in the All-Star Sports rankings. Nelson was labeled the nation's No. 25 prospect by FoxSports.com.
"Phil Nelson, Quincy Pondexter and Adrian Oliver; those guys are all players that can come in and contribute," Romar projected. "They all really understand how to play the game. We feel that we got a great mixture of a winning mentality, high level of talent and high level of character with this group."
Style of Play
Despite the departure of some marquee players, Romar doesn't expect to change the Huskies' style of play. He believes the newcomers will enhance rather than detract from his up-tempo offense that ranked among the NCAA's top-six highest scoring outfits for the third straight season.
"We'll play the same way, running the floor and defending. It will stay the same. We had size down in San Antonio with the USA Team. We played the same way and it was successful."
Romar served as the head coach for the U.S. under-18 team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Tournament of the Americas during July in San Antonio, Texas. The team included Hawes who tallied 24 points and 10 rebounds in the championship game victory over Argentina.
Romar had a golden opportunity to watch his future UW protégé in action. The U.S. squad played the same high-octane system that Romar implements with the Huskies.
"For the first time since we have been at Washington we have size. We will have size without sacrificing quickness," said Romar. "This team has really good chemistry even though they are young. I think that this team will really play well together."
The Huskies' frontline features two McDonald's All-Americans in Brockman and Hawes. Brockman led the team with 6.5 rebounds per game and was the No. 2 shooter in the Pac-10 with a 51.8-percent field goal accuracy. His scoring average of 8.4 points will increase as he helps fill the offensive void left by the departure of the league's No. 2 scorer Roy (20.2).
"I think that Jon Brockman will be one of the more improved players in our league this year," projected Romar. "Jon was somewhat like Brandon Roy in that Brandon deferred to his teammates because he is so unselfish and then when those guys moved on you saw what Brandon did. This year he will step up."
Brockman will be paired up front with his good friend Hawes, who gives the Huskies a dominant inside post presence they haven't had since the departure of Todd MacCulloch in 1999.
"We expect him to make an immediate impact," Romar said. "We have not had someone who can step in and do the things that he does with his size. As a 7-footer, he is able to score on the low block and able to pass the basketball with a good feel."
Athletic newcomer Pondexter should thrive in the Huskies frenetic system, taking minutes that Jones filled last year. Pondexter was tabbed as the nation's seventh-best small forward after starring at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, Calif.
One of only two seniors on the team is 6-9 forward Hans Gasser who was a solid contributor in 2006. His role will increase based on his excellent perimeter shooting and knowledge of the system.
Sophomore Artem Wallace should see increased playing time after averaging nine minutes in 16 games last season. He is a supremely athletic 6-8 banger who is deft around the basket.
One of the nation's finest long-range shooters, Nelson is a product of McNary High School. The 6-7 forward was a first-team All-Oregon state selection last year.
"We have recruited one of the best shooters in the country in Phil Nelson," said Romar. "He is not just limited to being a shooter. He is an excellent passer and has a great feel for the game."
The front court took a hit when red-shirt freshman center Joe Wolfinger went down before the season with a stress fracture in his foot. The 7-foot center worked hard to prepare for the upcoming season, but his UW debut will be delayed until late in the season. When healthy, he is a fantastic long-range shooter.
The guard corps is in good hands with Dentmon returning at the point and long-range marksman Ryan Appleby back to again stretch defenses.
Romar emphasizes the importance of having a returning point guard with such a young team.
"It's huge, really huge. Not only was he a starter, but he played quality minutes and played in NCAA tournament games. Justin has had the ball in his hands down the stretch of important games. He has been in every perceivable situation in terms of experience so it helps out a great deal."
Appleby received the 2006 Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year award after hitting 70 treys, nearly one-third of the teams total.
"Ryan is as dangerous a shooter as there is in the country. He also worked quite a bit this summer on getting to the basket and he's better at that. We're going to be counting on Ryan as a big part of what we are doing."
Junior Joel Smith is another experienced guard who has thrived two years in a reserve role.
"Joel is a phenomenal athlete, one of the best on the team. He had really good freshman and sophomore years and we don't see any reason why he doesn't progress this year. We are counting on him to really help us this year. He saw the model of what needs to be done with last year's team and he just needs to fill in where those guys left off."
Combination guard Oliver will challenge for the two guard position vacated by Roy, but is also capable of backing up Dentmon at the point.
"Adrian could be the best all-around guard that we've recruited here," Romar declared. "He is an extremely complete guard who can shoot the three and play any position on the perimeter."
Fourth-year walk-on Brandon Burmeister should also see increased playing time. He is an outstanding long-range shooter who played significant minutes in 2006.
The backcourt depth is improved by the addition of red-shirt freshman Harvey Perry who sat out last season with a back injury. The 6-4 guard appears healthy and ready to work his way into the rotation.
The departure of four significant players, including three standouts that were invited to NBA preseason camps, make this a transition year. First-team All-American Brandon Roy was the 2006 Pac-10 Player of the Year. He was the sixth player picked in the draft, joining Bobby Jones who was a second-round selection. Jones received honorable mention All-Pac-10 Team accolades as did departed forward Jamaal Williams.
Also gone is four-year starting forward Mike Jensen and crowd favorite Zane Potter. The Huskies sustained an additional loss when red-shirt sophomore center Zach Johnson decided to end his playing career due to knee injuries that made his return unlikely.
"I think as good as those players were when they were young, I think that this group now is probably a little more talented than the first group when they were young," Romar explained. "So we just have to grow together again, but it is not like we are starting from scratch like before. We will experience some tough times early I think, because we are so young."
Home games against two Final Four teams and a season-opening, four-team tournament ,highlight the challenging 2006-07 schedule. The Huskies play 10 games against 2006 NCAA Tournament competitors. Nineteen of 30 regular-season games will be played at Bank of America Arena where UW posted a 17-2 record in 2006.
The regular season begins on the earliest date ever with the opening round of the three-day Basketball Travelers Classic that runs Nov. 12-14 at Bank of America Arena. The UW-hosted tournament features a four-team field in a round-robin format. The Huskies have a first-round matchup with Pepperdine, the school at which Romar began his head coaching career in 1996. Northern Iowa, a 2006 NCAA Tournament competitor, and Nicholls State square off in the other half of the first-day doubleheader.
Those three tournament dates begin a stretch of seven straight home games for Washington, matching last year's start as the school's longest season-opening homestand since 1945.
Highlighting the non-conference home slate is a Dec. 20 meeting with Final Four qualifier LSU.
The Huskies venture away from Seattle twice for non-conference encounters. Both times they meet formidable foes. Washington continues its series with Gonzaga, visiting the McCarthey Center in Spokane on Dec. 9. UW takes a break during the middle of Pac-10 on Feb. 17, making a cross-country trek to play at Big East power Pittsburgh. The Panthers made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
"The schedule is very well put together. It will be a very tough schedule that includes a couple Final Four teams in UCLA and LSU," Romar remarked. "The road trip to Pittsburgh will be difficult.
"It's not the ideal schedule to throw at a young team, but our kids like to play big games against tough opponents."
"The goal is to maximize our ability for the year and our expectation is that we are playing our best basketball by the end of the season," said Romar.
Another goal the Huskies strive to achieve is a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. They would be the first UW team to accomplish that feat. The current streak of three straight NCAA berths equals the school record established between 1984-86.
To accomplish those goals, Romar must become a youth worker again.
"We'll throw them out there and let guys make mistakes early and let them learn from their mistakes. About the time you get to conference play, your young players are a little more seasoned."