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'Born Ready' Thomas Leads Huskies into Another NCAA Tournament
Release: 03/18/2011
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March 18, 2011

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By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Isaiah Thomas was walking along the basement corridor of Time Warner Cable Arena on his way to an interview room. A young, NCAA staffer walking with him asked the Huskies' point guard an innocuous question.

But nothing is innocuous to the ultra-competitive Thomas. Not in March.

"Are you ready?" for the tournament, the staff guy asked on Thursday to the Most Outstanding Player in last week's Pac-10 tournament.

Thomas' flat, two-word answer came as quickly as his crossover move.

"Born ready."

After three days in the Queen City, tonight's second round of the NCAA tournament is finally arriving for Thomas and his Huskies. Seventh-seeded Washington (23-10) meets 10th-seeded Georgia (21-11) for the first time ever at 6:45 p.m. Pacific time in a Dawg-eat-Dawg battle that is likely to be decided in the lane.

The winner advances to Sunday afternoon's third round here against the winner of Friday's earlier game between second-seeded North Carolina and 15th-seeded Long Island.

"The bright lights are on now," Thomas said of UW's sixth NCAA appearance in coach Lorenzo Romar's nine seasons leading the Huskies.

Romar is 7-5 in the NCAAs at Washington. He likens the Bulldogs to rugged USC, so like he did last weekend in the Pac-10 tournament he may take advantage of unusual versatility in his starting lineup to match up inside.

Georgia's leading scorer is 6-foot-10 Trey Thompkins, whom Romar coached last summer on the national, developmental college select team. Romar calls him a cross between Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams of Arizona and USC's versatile, shooting big man Nikola Vucevic, in that he likes to catch and shoot from at or near the foul line.

"He was GOOD," Romar said of Thompkins last summer, when the select team played against NBA players. "Can step away from the basket and is totally comfortable that way, yet you give it to him on the block and he can score there, too.

"There's no secret. You have to go out and do a good job defending Trey."

That sounds like a job for Aziz N'Diaye and Darnell Gant. Gant, perhaps the Huskies' most versatile defender, and N'Diaye can matchup plenty with Thompkins inside and out, freeing UW second-leading scorer Matthew Bryan-Amaning for offense.

Romar calls Gant, the team jokester who led the team in singing Happy Birthday to Charlene, the wife of assistant coach Raphael Chillious, at the team dinner Thursday night, Washington's unsung hero. The scrapper kept alive the Huskies' rally late in regulation in the Pac-10 title game against Arizona last weekend by hustling to loose balls and rebounds and getting deflections defensively. The junior had his first 10-rebound game in the conference semifinals against Oregon. He says he has embraced his blue-collar role on this team. And with toughness being the key to this game, his role figures to be magnified.

If UW wants to force the faster tempo it prefers, look for pressing like the kind that turned around the conference tournament. Of course, it takes made shots to set up the press full court, something Washington didn't have for a most of four weeks leading into the Pac-10 tournament.

You will know Washington is playing the way its coach wants if Thomas and his fellow guards are in the Bulldogs' jerseys defensively 25 feet or more from the rim.

In other words, it all starts with defense. As it always does with Romar's teams.

That's where Venoy Overton will help. The senior point guard and fiery defender returns Friday after suspension from the Pac-10 tournament. So Thomas shouldn't have to play all night like he did last week in Los Angeles, when he was in for 123½ of a possible 125 minutes of the Pac-10 tournament.

"It makes it so much easier for me, especially when I'm tired," Thomas said. "He makes the game a lot easier for me, so I'm glad he's back."

Offensively, look for the offense to focus on getting the ball inside with either Thomas' penetration and/or entry passes to Bryan-Amaning in an attack on Georgia's interior.

The Bulldogs are coached by Mark Fox, a UW assistant under Lynn Nance in 1992 and '93.

"A very driven person. Mark is a great guy, but also a no-nonsense guy," Romar said. "You can see he has them playing the right way."

The way is with defense, which is the same route Washington is aiming to advance in its third consecutive NCAA tournament. That experience has shown here since the team arrived Tuesday night. The Huskies don't seem fazed by the setting or the circumstances, and are treating this is as a somewhat routine road game.

The Dawgs have company in their goals of advancing. When they walked into an Italian restaurant in the Southpark section of Charlotte Thursday night for a team dinner, a patron in the main dining room shouted with a southern accent to the passing players: "I have y'all in my Final Four!"

The long road to making that guy - and everyone else in purple and gold - happy begins Friday night.

"We know everything is on the line right now, and we can't let any play mess us up," Bryan-Amaning said. "Right now, we're just trying to pay attention to every single detail, because blowing opportunities could make it your last game."

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