March 14, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Last March, as West Virginia pounded his Huskies with size and brute force from all five positions in the NCAA tournament round of 16, Lorenzo Romar knew what had to happen next.
Get a size guy.
"We have him now," Romar said on Monday, flashing a smile and a raised thumb at having signed 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye as a junior-college transfer last spring, just weeks after the Mountaineers bull-rushed Washington out of the NCAAs.
And guess what? The Huskies' very next NCAA tournament opponent, 10th-seeded Georgia, will bring more physicality Friday night at approximately 6:45 p.m. Pacific time in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte N.C.
But the seventh seed in the East region has a 7-footer this time.
"We're excited we have him now," Romar said of N'Diaye. "This is really where he earns his scholarship."
Husky fans want more scoring than 4.6 points per game from the transfer from Senegal, by way of the College of Southern Idaho. And there are times N'Diaye loses the ball through his hands in the lane too easily for a mammoth man so tall and 260 pounds.
"Play bigger!" Huskies coaches were yelling from the bench at the giant sophomore during last weekend's Pac-10 tournament UW eventually won in Los Angeles.
Yet N'Diaye's true value to this team right now is his intimidating, shot-blocking defense, his rebounding (5.6 rebounds in just 17.2 minutes per game) -- and his ability to lessen the defensive burden inside on senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning. That last trend has allowed Bryan-Amaning to almost double his scoring average from last season and become Washington's second-leading scorer behind Isaiah Thomas at 15.5 points per game.
Georgia's physical enough that 6-10 leading scorer Trey Thompkins averages 7.5 rebounds per game and 6-4 Travis Leslie is right with him at 7.2 rebounds per game - as a guard. Romar also sees how brutish 6-8 forward Jeremy Price is for the Bulldogs inside.
Plus, Romar has learned over his seven career NCAA tournaments as a coach - including while leading Saint Louis in 2000 - that officials let players play with more physicality during March Madness than in the often foul-plagued regular season.
So the coach's new starting lineup that gave 6-6 freshman scoring guard Terrence Ross his first three career starts in Los Angeles may not stay the same for a fourth consecutive game once the Huskies get to Charlotte. That is even though Ross averaged 15.7 points per game in the Pac-10 tournament and made the conference's all-tournament team.
"We went with the same lineup for three games in the Pac-10 tournament. But like I said, if we had played UCLA (instead of Oregon) in the second game, we would not have gone with that lineup," Romar said.
For now, Romar doesn't know if it will be Ross or N'Diaye starting Friday night. The coaching staff is still reviewing Georgia's film and crafting a game plan.
"We're just kind of looking at matchups," the coach said.
This is the first time in Romar's nine seasons at UW - and first time in his six NCAA tournament appearances leading the Huskies - that he's had a fluid lineup past February.
"I can't remember a year, maybe with the exception of our first year and Senior Nights, that once we've gotten into the second half of conference we've changed our lineup," he said. "It is definitely unique."
The Huskies spent Monday taking final exams and turning in term papers, with a light walkthrough practice in the afternoon. They are finalizing plans to leave for North Carolina perhaps as early as Tuesday afternoon. Romar wants to get them recovered from their exams and from the travel across three time zones - plus get them recharged from last weekend's three-wins-in-three-days route to the Pac-10 tournament title -- far in advance of Friday night's tipoff.
In that sense, he doesn't mind that the NCAA tournament committee placed the Huskies in Charlotte, instead of western early-round sites such as Tucson, Ariz., or Denver. It was more important to the Dawgs that the tournament gave them a first game on Friday, instead of Thursday.
"Friday is ample time to regain our energy," Romar said. "With the emotional high of winning the Pac-10 tournament coupled with the cross-country travel, I think it's helpful to have the extra day."
About as helpful, say, as having a 7-footer around for the NCAA tournament.