Nov. 14, 2008
By GREGG BELL
SEATTLE - When the Washington Huskies make the three-plus-hour drive down Interstate 5 for a rare season opener at Portland, they should take a yellow school bus.
Four freshmen, including exciting playmaker Isaiah Thomas, and three sophomores will be in uniform when these Husky pups open a season on the road for the first time since coach Lorenzo Romar arrived in 2002.
"It's going to be fun. We can mess around on the bus on the drive down," said leading scorer and rebounder Jon Brockman, a chaperone for the trip as one of only three seniors.
No, the Huskies will be boarding a cushy, charter bus _ the kind with tinted windows and TV _ when they leave Friday. No matter the ride, Brockman says it's going to be strange to begin the season away from home. Most major college teams open with not one but many non-conference home games to ease into the season. Three years ago, Washington opened with 13 home games and one on a neutral floor before finally finding an opponent's floor in mid-January.
Curiously, the Pac-10 has three teams opening on the road this weekend: On Friday Stanford plays at Yale and Oregon State goes east to Howard.
"It's a little weird," Brockman said of starting away, adding he last did it as a freshman at Snohomish High School. "But we're going to have to come to it sooner or later."
As for all the young players leaving the comforts of campus right away, for the first game that counts, Brockman said, "There's always going to be a little bit of shock the first time you go on the road in college. ... We've let them know you are going to be shocked."
All except one, perhaps.
Brockman, Romar and anyone else who saw Isaiah Thomas score 27 points in just 19 minutes in his first college game last week _ an exhibition win over Division II Western Washington _ know the flashy, 5-foot-8 guard from Tacoma won't cower to a hostile crowd or unfamiliar surroundings.
He's spent the last two years growing up at South Kent School, a prep school in Connecticut for which he left home after his junior year at Curtis High School to get his grades high enough to enter the UW. And the 19-year-old's game looks even older, hardened by playing with Seattlites and NBA veterans Brandon Roy and Jamal Crawford at gyms in suburban Renton and the Rainier Beach section of the city.
"I don't think of Isaiah as a freshman," said Brockman, who has known Thomas for years from playing summer ball with him. "He's handled everything else a little bit differently than everyone else. He's just mature beyond his years. Everything he does. The way he plays. Off the court."
The confident, almost cocky Thomas brushes off the idea he'll be nervous Saturday.
"The big game was last Thursday," his exhibition debut, he said. "I was jittery. I had goose bumps. That's past me. Now, it's all normal."
Washington last opened with a game at an opponent's gym in 1999 at another West Coast Conference school, Saint Mary's in Moraga, Calif. The Huskies began in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2001, but that was the first of three games in the Top of the World Classic.
Portland was 10-23 overall and 3-11 in the WCC last season. The young Pilots return five players who started at least 13 games last season, and seven of its top eight scorers are back. But the team has no seniors, and was picked by WCC media to finish sixth in its eight-team conference.
Romar, who turned 50 on Thursday, reminded this is largely the same team, just older, than the one that was down by two points at Washington with less than a minute remaining last Dec. 15 before the Huskies won 67-63. He calls this a "dangerous" opener.
Thomas and Brockman know Pilots sophomore forward Luke Sikma, from Bellevue, Wash., High School. They have played with the son of former Seattle SuperSonics star Jack Sikma in summer games.
Washington will likely be without sophomore forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who is doubtful after falling hard in practice last weekend and hurting his hip, knee and ankle. Romar said Bryan-Amaning may be OK for the home opener against Cleveland State on Tuesday.
The Huskies' fifth freshman, Tyreese Breshers, is still recovering from knee and shin injuries and likely won't begin practicing until the first week of December. Romar said Breshers might redshirt if he isn't ready by then.