Jan. 19, 2011
SEATTLE - Disrespect drives Isaiah Thomas.
Doubters - those who say he is too small, who say he shoots too much or is too reckless -- motivate him.
But want to know what really fuels the Huskies' do-it-all dynamo to play the way he did Sunday night at California in the best performance from a UW guard coach Lorenzo Romar says he's ever seen?
Bags of Skittles. Heaping bowls of Cocoa Puffs.
"Yeah. And bubble gum," Thomas told me Tuesday, grinning just off the court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion while pulling out of his sweatpants pocket a sugary wad with a yellow, blue and red wrapping.
Practice for Thursday night's showdown with Arizona for first place in the Pac-10 was about to begin. And Thomas' mouth was filled. The 20th-ranked Huskies' sweet-driving, sweet-dishing - and sweets-eating -- point guard was plowing through another bag of Skittles as if it was an flat-footed defender at the top of the key.
The rainbow colored sugar pellets were just like the rest of the conference right now: No match for Isaiah Thomas.
Don't take my word for it. Take those of the people trying to stop him.
"To me, everybody in college basketball should be talking about Isaiah Thomas," Arizona coach Sean Miller said on the eve of his Wildcats arriving for the Huskies' biggest home game of the season.
"He deserves to be put in the category of the nation's best point guards."
Here's how good Thomas been: The junior is among 30 finalists for the Wooden Award that goes annually to college basketball's best player. And his scoring average is actually down slightly from last season, from 16.9 points per game to 16.5.
He is the Pac-10's leader in assists. He is third in scoring. He is 16th all-time, and rising, on UW's points list. He has seven or more assists in each of his last five games. His remarkably improved assist-to-turnover ratio is now fourth-best in the conference.
Darn good has gotten even better.
"I've said all along: He's a complete guard," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "The things we talked about before the season was getting that assist-to-turnover ratio up, and shooting a higher field-goal percentage.
"I think he's met both of those areas head on."
Run them over, actually.
Here's a jaw-dropping way to view the season-high 27 points and career-best 13 assists Thomas dropped on Cal Sunday night: He scored or assisted on 57 of Washington's 92 points.
He willed the Huskies to the nationally televised blowout win, which leaves UW 5-1 in the Pac-10 for the seventh time since the league took its current form for the 1978-79 season.
When he wasn't passing, Thomas created his own shot to score or to get fouled. Or both.
Romar was still marveling about Thomas' night in Berkeley two days and a plane ride home later.
"The assists? Yeah, but the assists and the points? Haven't had any one do that," Romar said.
Indeed, Washington had never had a performance like that, not even before Romar arrived to coach in 2002. Not by star guards Nate Robinson, Doug Wren or Will Conroy. Not even by recent Pac-10 player of the year Brandon Roy.
Conroy was the last Husky to have at least 13 assists in a game. When he had 13 at Loyola Marymount on Dec. 12, 2004, he scored nine points. When he had 13 assists against Sacred Heart on Dec. 22, 2004, he scored 11 points. And when Conroy had 14 assists at Cal on March 3, 2005, he scored just two points.
On Jan. 10, 2002, Curtis Allen had 15 assists, one short of Rafael Stone's school record set in 1970. But Allen scored only seven points that day against Arizona State.
The last time the Dawgs needed Thomas so much on the road, Dec. 31 after UCLA cut UW's 17-point lead to four, Thomas had a hand in each of the final 17 points of that Huskies' win. It completed just Washington's third sweep ever at the Los Angeles schools.
"That game, it just kind of opened up to him like, `Whoa! OK,'" Romar said.
The assists at Cal came as Thomas dribbled from the top of the key, sometimes around single and double ball screens, and repeatedly dashed into the lane past stunned Bears. Then came no-look feeds to Matthew Bryan-Amaning or Justin Holiday for easy scores down low, or to Holiday, new starting wing Scott Suggs or others for open 3-pointers outside.
"The more shooters I've got, the harder it is to guard me," Thomas says, flatly.
All this is the latest response in Thomas' lifelong quest to shut up all those who see he is barley 5-feet-9 and just scoff.
"First of all, when you play basketball and you are 5-9, you are being told `You can't,'" said Romar, a 6-1 guard who played five seasons in the NBA during the 1980s following his playing career at UW.
"'Uh, I'd like to apply for this job, basketball,'" Romar says, mimicking a formal, job-interview voice.
"How tall are you?"
"'Sorry.' (And they) hang up the phone on you."
"So he's been automatically told me can't, his entire life on the basketball floor," the coach says. "He's always been told, `You can't do it. You can't get to this point.' So he just has this built-in chip on his shoulder.
"I have a sneaking suspicion he is thinking, `I'm just getting started.'"
Yep, started in a whole new role, following the season-ending injury to UW point guard and good friend Abdul Gaddy that happened in practice days after the win at UCLA.
Many will always know Thomas as a scoring wonder, the kid who had a Washington Class 4A-record 51 points for Curtis High School during the 2006 state tournament. But now he actually says passes are more enjoyable than points.
"As of right now, it's more fun to pass and see a smile on their faces," Thomas said of his teammates. "As long as they are happy and we are winning, I'm good."
Those who have known him for years can't believe this new I.T.
Minutes after his monster night at Cal, Thomas' phone was blowing up with calls. He returned Conroy's and reported the 27 points.
"Will thought I was lying when I said I had 13 assists," Thomas said, laughing.
And, oh, yeah, Thomas knew he was piling up those. The same guy who heard criticism early in his UW career for being a selfish, shoot-first guard is aiming to lead the conference in assists this season.
He's well on his way. Thomas' 5.4 per game is a full assist more than anyone else in the Pac-10.
"I had six at halftime," he said of the Cal game. "I told Holiday and Scott, `Man, right when I pass it to you, just let it go.' And they made a couple in a row, so that got me to nine right away."
His game has accelerated since the Huskies lost Gaddy, the conference's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, to a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago. Thomas is averaging 9.3 assists over the last four games.
"I've got the ball in my hand a lot more than when he was playing. I'm just pushing the ball, and seeing things that he saw," Thomas said of Gaddy, whom he mentored all summer back in their hometown of Tacoma. "He's a good player; I just probably have more of a scorer's mentality. That just opens it up more for myself.
Asked if he was surprised at how dominant he was at Cal, Thomas replied with his signature bravado, the quality that makes his game as sweet as his tooth.
Romar thought Thomas' masterful night began on the no-nonsense bus ride from the Claremont Hotel down the hill to Haas Pavilion in Berkeley.
I thought it began in the hallway outside the visiting locker room in Maples Pavilion three nights earlier.
I saw a steely resolve on his face and heard it in his words minutes after Washington gave away an 11-point lead and lost by two at Stanford. I saw a winner who hated that he just lost to an inferior team, who hated that what he saw as a realistic chance to become the only 18-0 team in Pac-10 history vanish.
Thomas knows he can take over games by himself, by driving fiendishly into the lane with a left-hand move everyone knows but almost no one can stop.
So at Cal, that's just what he did.
"I was doing everything," Thomas said. "The biggest thing, I was leading. I was telling guys don't let up. We let up that Thursday night game and got us our loss."
Any more doubters counting on Thomas letting up this Thursday, on national TV against Arizona?
The Huskies would love for you to step forward. It would give Thomas more fuel than he already has.
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 GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.