Dec. 24, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The Huskies call him "Zeke." Fans call him "I.T."
Maybe he should be called "Rolex."
Whether it's at the end of summer pickup games or the end of Washington's non-conference schedule heading into Pac-10 play, Isaiah Thomas always seems to know what time it is.
"It's real time now," the dynamic junior said after the final tuneup for the Pac-10 season.
Wednesday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Thomas decided the end of the non-conference schedule was time to take over. His way of preparing himself and his Huskies (8-3) for league play was to dump a season highs of 24 points, eight rebounds and 19 shots to go along with four assists on Nevada in Washington's 30-point win.
Thomas' first signature game of the season has the Dawgs looking ready to prove their worthiness as the Pac-10's preseason favorites beginning Wednesday at USC and New Year's Eve at UCLA.
"I've said many times that Isaiah is a guard that can do a lot of different things," said Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, who's also often stated Thomas could score 30 on any night. "(If) he's shooting it well, he's coming off screens knocking shots down. If he has to run a team, then he runs the team.
"I just think he's talented enough to adjust his game and adapt to the situation."
Senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning says Thomas is the same way in preseason pickup games. He lets teammates take the bulk of the shots - until the game is on the line. Then everyone in the gym knows it's Thomas' time.
Wednesday against Nevada, the 5-foot-9 dynamo drove down the lane with crossover dribbles past the stunned Wolf Pack. He bulled through multiple defenders. He jump stopped forcefully in the paint, freeing up easy shots for himself or teammates. He stepped to the top of the key and swished a 3-pointer.
But is this when the Huskies are at their best, when Thomas is being less of a facilitator and more an aggressive controller of games?
"I feel that's the right thing to say," Thomas said. "Not that I have to score 25 every night. I've just got to make plays - the right plays. Coach always talks to me about making the right plays.
"I always say the guys feed off me. ... I feel like everybody looks at me as the key to what we are doing."
Thomas had a plan during the non-conference season: Get the new guys involved early in the season, to better understand Romar's system. That meant creating chances for redshirt freshman sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox, 7-foot junior-college transfer Aziz N'Diaye and freshman wing Terrence Ross instead of for himself. Thomas figured that would pay off more for the Huskies in March than, say, him trying to score 20-plus each night.
Thomas was averaging 15 points and four assists per game entering Wednesday with that approach. Solid numbers, but not the eye-popping stuff he is capable of, the stuff that has him on multiple watch lists to be the national player of the year.
"I didn't really play like I did (Wednesday) in the other games, just to get guys accustomed to playing the right way," he said.
Wilcox has scored 20 points in a game already this season. N'Diaye looks to be past knee pain and is entrenched in the starting lineup after his second double-double of the season in 20 minutes Wednesday. And Romar says Ross, who had nine points in 19 minutes against Nevada, may be the most athletically gifted player on the loaded team.
With Thomas now emerging into the follow-me role, and N'Diaye and Bryan-Amaning fixing rebounding issues, the Huskies are where they want to be heading into the Pac-10 season.
They are certainly ahead of where they were at the start of the month, when Thomas stole the ball but got his harried shot blocked at the buzzer in a one-point loss at Texas A&M - the Huskies' worst-played game of the season.
"I think we've built ourselves back up to where we're at that level before we played Texas A&M - and maybe even a little better," Romar said. "Now, we have to take it on the road.
"I don't know what his numbers will be in Los Angeles, but I keep saying it: Isaiah Thomas is a winner. And he will have his team ready."