Nov. 12, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - When Lorenzo Romar first started calling recruits upon his arrival as Washington's coach eight years ago, simply asking kids if they wanted to join his Huskies didn't get him very far.
"Our first year people were really excited - really excited sometimes - when we would call them," Romar said wryly this week, "because they thought we were UConn.
"The conversation didn't last very long when they found out who we really were. Or, we'd try to get them to come out for a visit and they would say `Great. Maybe we can see the White House while we are there.'"
Romar's calls last a whole lot longer now, entering his ninth season in charge of those Huskies. And everybody knows the Washington power the two-time Pac-10 coach of the year leads sure isn't in D.C.
That's what five NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons, three advances into the Sweet 16, UW's first outright Pac-10 regular-season championship in half a century and two conference tournament titles - not to mention Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Jon Brockman, Spencer Hawes and now Isaiah Thomas - do for a program's street cred.
"At least they are listening to what we have to say," Romar said.
Washington's rep is soaring entering Saturday's season opener at 1 p.m. inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion against McNeese State of the Southland Conference.
There is no television coverage of the first game, but Washington ISP Sports Network will have the live radio broadcast. Gohuskies.com will have a live, in-game chat, real-time stats and streaming audio.
The Huskies return four starters, 64 percent of their scoring and 66 percent of their rebounding from last season's team that surged late to win the Pac-10 tournament title and advance to the NCAA regional semifinals, where it lost to West Virginia.
UW has been selected as the preseason favorite in the Pac-10 for the first time in school history.
"I feel we're on top (of the conference)," said Thomas, the fearless, 5-foot-9 guard from Tacoma, Wash., who is on watch lists to become the national player of the year. "Not to say that we are No. 1, but when I was growing up it was Arizona and UCLA. I feel we are one of those teams now."
Washington's five NCAA tournament appearances in Romar's eight years are tied with UCLA and Stanford for second-most in the Pac-10 behind Arizona's seven trips in that span. And Arizona just missed out last season for the first time in a quarter century.
The Bruins also missed the NCAAs. California has lost four starters off its team that won the conference's regular-season crown last season. That leaves the Huskies as the clear front-runner in the league.
"It seems like we have the target on our back," said sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy, one of UW's returning starters.
"But we love it."
The Huskies know grander stages than the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs may be within their reach.
"We know that the potential is there," inside force Matthew Bryan-Amaning said. "And we don't want to be a team that is only full of potential."
Bryan-Amaning, whose surge as a scorer and rebounder coincided with his team's late last season, is one of three seniors. Classmate and defensive ace Justin Holiday has impeccable awareness of where he and each member of his team should be in all situations on the floor.
"Man, he has a high basketball IQ," Romar said.
UW has so much experience that defensive menace Venoy Overton, the third senior, may be coming off the bench again.
Overton has been rehabilitating a pulled left hamstring since he injured it in mid-September. He estimated he was at 80 percent of full strength this week. He expects to play Saturday, and in Tuesday night's game against Eastern Washington.
The Huskies again have the athleticism and speed to continue its thrilling, breakneck pace on both ends of the floor. And this season they have two more components they've always wanted for their style of play under Romar, but have often gotten by without: strong outside shooting, plus an intimidating, shot-swallowing 7-footer inside, junior-college transfer Aziz N'Diaye.
N'Diaye didn't play last season at the College of Southern Idaho because of reconstructive knee surgery in June 2009. But he has wowed his new team with how fast he runs - he covered the mile in 5:21 in preseason conditioning - and how dominant he's been on defense.
The native of Senegal is the second 7-footer Romar has signed at UW. The other one, Hawes, liked to roam outside far more than N'Diaye will.
Romar was specifically thinking of the NCAA tournament when he added N'Diaye for the next three seasons - he is considered a sophomore because he got a medical redshirt last season at junior college.
"When you play in the NCAA tournament and continue to advance, the one thing you see more and more of is size," Romar said.
Thomas calls the shooting on this season's team "unbelievable," and it will give him new options deep on the wing for assists on fast breaks. He's been spending preseason practices and last week's exhibition game against Saint Martin's pleading with, cajoling and often yelling at teammates to shoot more while open from outside.
He shouldn't have to yell much at C.J. Wilcox. The former Utah high school sharpshooter is making his debut as a redshirt freshman. Romar says another arrival, 6-6 freshman Terrence Ross from Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., is likely the most athletically gifted player on the team.
"It's hard to overlook all that Terrence Ross can do on the floor, and how easy it is for him," the coach said.
Romar and his staff have been concerned with a lack of rebounding in the preseason. It may take a committee of rebounders, instead a Brockman-like dominator, to get the job done on missed shots this season.
"This year we are looking for more of a team effort on rebounding," said Gaddy, who is primed with a fresh outlook and better conditioning following a so-so freshman season. "We feel a lot of us can score. We're not really worried about that."
Romar and the veteran players believe the team's experience and understanding of roles from the end of last season should allow it to avoid the early inconsistency that plagued the Huskies last November, December and January.
They need to be sharper earlier this time. The schedule features the loaded Maui Invitational, which begins for Washington on Nov. 22 against Virginia. Michigan State, Oklahoma and Kentucky are also in that prestigious tournament.
Oh, so is Connecticut -- those "other" Huskies for whom Romar's guys are no longer mistaken.