March 10, 2009
By GREGG BELL
AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE (AP) - Jon Brockman stood atop a ladder Washington had been climbing for more than half a century.
The rugged senior snipped a strand of net then grabbed a microphone that was feeding the public-address system of his home arena on Saturday. Amid the roars of delirious fans who had stormed the court after the Huskies won their first outright conference championship in 56 years, Brockman recalled reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament during his freshman season in 2006, when Brandon Roy was a Huskies All-American.
"I have a feeling this group right here has a chance to do something a little more special!" Brockman yelled over the din.
No. 13 Washington (24-7, 14-4) enters the Pac-10 tournament on Thursday as the top seed. Lorenzo Romar, who won his second Pac-10 coach of the year award in four years, believes his team could be a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in NCAA tournament the following week while perhaps playing close to home in a regional at Portland, Ore.
His headstrong Huskies - overlooked as the fifth-best team in their conference before the season and by fans that think the Pac-10 has been weak during it _ believe they have the unselfishness and mettle to go further than any Washington team since 1953.
That was the last Washington team to win an outright league title, the Pacific Coast Conference, before it lost in the national semifinals.
"All I can say is, whoever's playing us, look out," senior guard Justin Dentmon said Monday, after he and Brockman were selected first team all-conference. "They are going to have a hard time playing us, a hard time defending us."
And maybe a hard time cracking them.
The Huskies' selflessness and unity after two years without an NCAA bid has become similar to winning in this success-starved city: Contagious.
Romar saw the change in attitude in the preseason. Players not wanting to let each other down showed up on time and ready for weight-training and running sessions, for classes on the main campus up the hill. Those who were even a minute late "got in pretty good shape," Romar said with a wry smile.
"That laid the foundation of creating a team environment in every area," he said.
But that unity took awhile to show during the regular season. Washington inexplicably lost its opener at Portland of the West Coast Conference in November.
Romar said he thought freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas, a high school star from Tacoma, Wash., who scored 51 points in a state tournament game, played like he wanted to score 30 points in his collegiate debut. Thomas had 10.
Then came a 19-point loss to Kansas on national television in Kansas City, Mo., nine days later. Washington scored a season-low 54 points and had eight assists, a selfish display that led to a player-led team meeting - and a season revival.
The Huskies were improved - 23 assists, 84 points - and more unified in a two-point loss to Florida the following night, which left them 2-3. Then Thomas embraced his role as a creator of points and opportunities for teammates. Dentmon, relieved of point guard duties with Thomas' emergence, went from benched last season to indispensable, making huge shots late in games.
Brockman, whose 58 double-doubles are the most of any active college player, averaged 14.8 points, just behind Thomas (15.4) and Dentmon (15.3).
Washington then won 13 of 14 to wrest Pac-10 supremacy away from UCLA. Thomas became the Pac-10's freshman of the year. And Dentmon was its most improved player.
The same Washington team that was overlooked for much of the season cleaned up in the awards the Pac-10 announced on Monday.
"The beauty of it all - and we've been preaching it all year - is to have one player of the week (Brockman just weeks ago) yet have all these awards. It was a TEAM effort," Romar said, emphasizing his favorite word with his eyes wide and his hands up as if literally grasping the concept.
Next week, Romar will lead the Huskies to their fourth NCAA tournament since the former UW player returned to coach them in 2002. Washington had been to four NCAA tournaments in 17 years before Romar arrived.
On Monday, Brockman got a chance to back off his on-court proclamation amid the emotion of that win over Washington State two days earlier.
Instead, he reiterated these Huskies have the potential to do more in the NCAAs than Roy's did three years ago.
"That team had kind of the Brandon Roy factor ... 'All right. Give Brandon the ball and let him go to work, get out of his way,'" Brockman said.
"This team had bought into the total team concept. This team, because we play together, because we have such good pieces, I think this team definitely can be a little more special."