Jan. 28, 2009
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Isaiah Thomas already has many different identities. Now he is establishing a new one for resurgent Washington.
And "I.T." is beautiful.
Coach Lorenzo Romar thinks his wondrous, brash freshman point guard, who has the Huskies soaring atop the Pac-10, plays like Damon Stoudamire, the former conference star and NBA player.
Thomas talks regularly to the diminutive man he most resembles in his Huskies uniform, former UW star Nate Robinson of the New York Knicks. Robinson encouraged Thomas to wear his old No. 2 at the UW this season.
Thomas? He thinks he plays more like Allen Iverson.
A city starved for sports success couldn't care less about "A.I." All it knows is that its No. 23 Huskies are back because, as the signs at Hec Edmundson Pavilion proclaim, "You can't stop 'I.T.!'"
"I think I've brought a little of the swagger back," the turnaround teen said before Washington (15-4, 6-1 Pac-10) left for games Thursday at Arizona and Saturday at 14th-ranked Arizona State.
The go-go Huskies have won 13 of 14 games, are the highest-scoring team in the Pac-10 and have become Seattle's exciting replacements for the NBA's SuperSonics, who moved to Oklahoma last summer. They toppled UCLA last weekend 86-75, more than anyone had scored this season against the bruising Bruins. They are ranked for the first time since January 2007.
All because their 5-foot-8 dynamo - no, not THAT Isiah Thomas - is the West's best freshman.
For two seasons, opponents have triple-teamed rugged star Jon Brockman, and Washington has missed the NCAA tournament. But now foes who pack defenses in are watching Thomas speed past or through them in the lane. His ability to make circus shots and draw fouls is fulfilling rampant hype and proving the thrilled fans are right when they flash their growing collection of "I.T.!" signs.
"I knew he was not going to be your typical freshman," said Brockman, the nation's leading returning rebounder who was wowed by Thomas in pickup games last summer. "What he's doing is really not surprising me at all."
Thomas is taking advantage of freedom that coaches usually don't give 19-year-old point guards with 19 games of college experience.
Romar doesn't call many plays for Thomas. He just watches with everyone else as Thomas dashes into the lane like he's trying to race a train _ or derail one. When a defender confronts him, he bolts by for a flashy shot or a pass to a teammate left open because others are scrambling to stop Thomas. Or he bangs into him to draw a foul. Or, he drifts back for a unique, floating flick of a shot.
"He is like Nate Robinson in this regard: If you give him a structured plan, he wouldn't do as well," Romar said. "We've been more hands-off. We don't want to stifle his creativity."
And freedom rings: Thomas leads the Huskies and all Pac-10 freshmen in scoring at 16.3 points per game, taking advantage of a team-leading 120 free throws and making 73 percent of them for what he calls "easy points."
He is averaging 19 points per game in conference play. Thomas, who turns 20 next weekend - he took two years to mature and improve his grades at a prep school in Connecticut - has surpassed 20 points in three of the last five games. The spree has come against box-and-one, zone-man hybrid defenses, such as those he saw while a phenom at Curtis High School in University Place, Wash.
Coaches around the Pac-10 are citing Thomas as the reason Washington has gone from fading to fantastic in 10 months.
"He's fearless," said Arizona coach Russ Pennell, whose erratic Wildcats (12-8, 2-5) rallied to defeat Houston last weekend after three consecutive losses. "He comes in with unusual leadership skills for a freshman. I really believe that's what's been missing from the Huskies' teams the last few years, having that 'one guy' since Brandon Roy left."
Thomas also signs autographs after games and has fans wearing T-shirts bearing his likeness. He scoffs at all this attention on and off the floor, last given here to Roy when he was an All-American leading the Huskies to their last NCAA tournament in 2006. He's used to it from high school, which he said was "crazy."
Now, the word's out that this new little Dawg has the Huskies barking again.
"The more we win, the more you guys are going to hear 'Washington,'" Thomas said. "I just have the attitude of, 'We're not going to back down from anybody.'"