March 16, 2011
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - I arrived here with the Huskies Tuesday night having questions.
Will Isaiah Thomas be reenergized enough six days after his Herculean endurance and performance won the Pac-10 tournament to remain the team's catalyst Friday night in the NCAA tournament against Georgia? (Well, he was tweeting at 1:30 a.m. the first night we were here, so maybe so.)
Will the Huskies' hot shooting in Los Angeles stay hot in Charlotte? Hot enough to allow Washington to continue its pressing ways that sparked them to a season revival last week?
|Thursday practice schedule
|• 12:00-12:40pm Tennessee|
|• 12:45-1:25pm Hampton University|
|• 1:30-2:10pm Michigan|
|• 2:15-2:55pm Duke|
|• 4:25-5:05pm North Carolina|
|• 5:10-5:50pm Washington|
|• 5:55-6:35pm Long Island|
Will CBS' Gus "Cold-blooded" Johnson please get assigned to a Huskies' tournament game again? As in, pronto?
There is one question I absolutely do not have about this team entering the NCAAs: The question of trust.
There is a predominant, common thread I've found while covering and traveling with this team for the last six months - from the intensive care unit of Seattle Children's Hospital on the team's visit there in September to the intense, thrilling games at Staples Center for the Pac-10 tournament title last weekend: These Huskies trust each other as much as any team, college or pro, that I've been around in a dozen years of journalism.
Don't underestimate how much of a factor that may be here for seventh-seeded UW (23-10) in the second round against the Bulldogs (21-11), and potentially in the third round against the winner of Friday's game between 15th-seeded Long Island and second-seeded North Carolina, the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Huskies are basically on their own here, foreigners 2,800 miles from home amid a season of Carolina blue.
"We'll see what happens," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar says. "It's a good time for us to be playing together and playing right."
This hasn't happened by accident.
Trust has already helped the Huskies get to six NCAA tournaments in Romar's nine seasons. It has helped them to three Sweet 16s in Romar's tenure. This season, it has returned them from inconsistency, from turmoil, from doubts, from near-NCAA elimination.
In Saturday's Pac-10 championship game, the nation got to see the most striking example of this bond, in the most visible moment yet this season for the Huskies. Romar trusted junior point guard Isaiah Thomas implicitly in the season's biggest moment to date.
After Arizona's Kevin Parrom tied the Pac-10 title game at 75 with a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in overtime, Thomas dribbled into the frontcourt against the Wildcats' Lamont Jones. Romar was beginning to call time out with his hands on the final possession, but Thomas waved him off from the middle of the court. "I could tell he was saying, `I got this, Coach,'" Romar said.
With about 5 seconds to go, the left-hander made a killer crossover dribble move to his left, about 15 feet from the basket to the left of the lane then coolly leaped, leaned away and lofted a high-arcing shot just inside the 3-point line - and just over Jones' extended arm.
The ball swished through the net at the exact instant time expired. The signature moment of Thomas' career so far, one of the best moments in Husky basketball history, built entirely upon ... you guessed it.
"Coach was going to call time out," Thomas said. "He trusted me."
Romar trusted his entire team would rebound from last month's three consecutive, ugly losses in six days. Specifically, he trusted his system of aggressive defense above all else would get the season back on track -- just as it did after Bobby Jones, Brandon Roy and the Huskies lost three straight in 2006. That season got back on track all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
These Huskies stuck together through the losses, which cost UW first place in the Pac-10 and its national ranking. Justin Holiday told me in the basement of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena following the third of those three straight defeats that week that he was proud no one was pointing fingers, that the team was staying united.
They stayed that way this month as Romar believed more in senior point guard Venoy Overton reforming and rebounding from personal legal issues that are not yet resolved than in kicking in him off the team. He trusted him when few, if any, did. The coach suspended Overton for last week's Pac-10 tournament but has reinstated him for Friday night's game and beyond. He will provide his defensive pressure, experience and depth in the NCAAs.
As controversial as that decision was, it was consistent with Romar's UW program. He is the head teacher, mentor - and believer. Recruits notice that kind of treatment and support of players.
They also notice this: Terrence Ross hadn't started all season. Yes, he was a dynamic freshman scorer whom Romar called perhaps the most athletically gifted player on the team. But he was continuing to learn Romar's demanding defensive system, and at times was a defensive liability. He didn't even play a single minute against USC 11 days ago.
Rather than sulk and lose faith, Ross stayed patient and characteristically even-keeled. He trusted Romar. Last week, he was rewarded with his first starts of his career. Ross returned the favor to his team by averaging more than 15 points per game in Los Angeles. He was the Pac-10's all-tournament team and was a large reason why Washington the league's tournament champion for the second consecutive season.
Romar has trusted his freshman so much, two of them are now in the starting lineup -- on a team with three seniors plus a junior, Thomas, who is the dominant personality of the team and a midseason candidate for national player of the year.
Ross joined redshirt freshman sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox in the lineup at the Pac-10 tournament. Thomas trusted the newbies with the conference title on the line Saturday. With 17 seconds left and Washington down 66-62, Thomas fed Ross for a huge 3-pointer. Then, down 3 with 7 seconds to go, Thomas drove the lane and passed into the corner to Wilcox, who swished the tying shot that sent the game into overtime.
That play came moments after Thomas had walked to the bench at Staples Center during a timeout in the taut second half and told his teammates, "I believe in you." Without that trust, Thomas' already famous, "cold-blooded" shot to end overtime never would have happened.
"They stepped up," Thomas said. "I love my teammates."
Wilcox wouldn't even have been in that corner rising for the tying jumper had he not believed in Romar, his staff and his system so much. Wilcox approached the coaches at the beginning of last season and suggested he redshirt. He didn't transfer. He didn't waver. He practiced and learned and acclimated himself to the point he now could become a four-year starter and one of the deadliest shooters UW has ever had.
Romar even trusts his players with itinerary changes. Sort of.
Last month while in Tucson the day before Washington's huge game at first-place Arizona, Romar was in his customary seat at the front of the team bus as the Huskies left practice and headed for lunch on the way back to their hotel. He turned and asked the players where they wanted to go.
All kinds of answers flew from the back of the bus - "In-N-Out" (which wasn't around) "Burger King" (which isn't any good) -- but the predominant one was "Chick-fil-A." So Romar instructed the driver to head to the nearest location of the fast-food chicken place.
On the way there, the coach learned the nearest Chick-fil-A was actually inside the Arizona student union, smack in the center of campus. He wasn't about to let conspicuously tall Huskies in purple basketball gear go into the epicenter of Wildcats' fandom.
I mean, his trust has its limits.
So Romar had the bus turn around and re-opened the bidding on what was now becoming a comical lunch odyssey. The poor driver was about to make his second lap of the U of A campus when Romar saw a Taco Bell and a Wendy's side by side. He asked the players which one of the two they wanted. Kids being kids, shouts came for both. Romar had the driver pull over and allowed the team to go to either one.
Staffers who have traveled with the team for years said it may have been the first time Romar had trusted the players to choose where the team stopped to eat. That little moment told a lot.
Who knows what will happen here in Charlotte beginning Friday night? Who knows how far these talented, spirited but at times inconsistent Dawgs will go?
But I know this: You are going to see the best the Huskies have while they are in Charlotte.
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.