Jan. 5, 2009
By Michael Jeremiah
It's no secret that the Seattle area has seen a spike in Division I-caliber basketball players in the last decade. The Huskies have been the main beneficiary of the trend. Players like Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, and Will Conroy were all local products that contributed greatly to the success the program has enjoyed recently.
Even after years of the Seattle pipeline producing impact players, the talent pool hasn't run dry. Sophomore guard Venoy Overton out of Franklin High School is yet another player from Seattle proving that he belongs in the Pac-10. Overton is not alone as an underclassman from the area, but his counterpart hails from a different part of the Puget Sound region.
Freshman guard Isaiah Thomas calls the Northwest home, but his prep days at Curtis High in Tacoma led to a friendly rivalry between Thomas and just about anyone north on I-5. Overton and Thomas were in the same class and considered to be among the top players in the state. The fact that they were battling for regional bragging rights was the perfect topper to the rivalry they shared.
"He's from Seattle, I'm from Tacoma and we don't really get along like that," said Thomas. "Every time we hit the floor it's always been like a little rivalry between me and him. Who could outdo each other and basically get the `W', that's how it's always been between me and him."
That rivalry peaked during the duo's junior seasons, when Thomas' Curtis team faced off against an Overton-led Franklin squad in the state semifinals. With the bright lights of the Tacoma Dome on them, Thomas and Overton gave the crowd a show. Thomas enjoyed a career night with 51 points against Franklin, fouling out Overton. However, Overton had the last laugh as Franklin won the game and ultimately the state championship.
That semifinal game was their only meeting in high school play, but they faced off in AAU as members of rival select teams. Thomas played for Friends of Hoop while Overton was a member of Seattle Rotary. Thomas made sure to point out that their AAU games had stories of their own, referencing a game in Portland where he scored 43 points and Overton had 39. This time, though, it was Thomas' side that got the victory.
"People say it was a rivalry but our teams would never really play each other," said Overton. "We played each other only once in high school, and in AAU we played each other around three times. It was like a long-distance rivalry, so I guess it was about who was the best player on the court."
Regional, individual or no rivalry at all, Overton and Thomas find themselves at Washington. It was a combination that almost never was, though, as Overton originally committed to USC before switching to the Huskies late in the recruiting process, and Thomas had to wait until 2008 to gain entrance into the UW.
Overton and Thomas now head a promising young backcourt for the Huskies. They are already reminding fans of two former Husky guards from the area in Conroy and Robinson. Overton's shut-down defense is reminiscent of Conroy's prowess on the court, while Thomas reminds many of the offensive-minded Robinson. A second coming of the duo would be well-received by the Huskies, as their tenure included NCAA tournament appearances.
"We're trying to do everything we can to bring those days back and get wins," said Thomas. "That's all we are looking forward to, getting wins and getting back to the NCAA tournament."
Said Overton: "We are trying to get as far as we can and trying to get into the tournament. We are trying to surprise a lot of people and get the Huskies back on the map and get into that top-25 pool."
Their team mentality and goals can only be helped by the individual improvement that the two have shown this year. For all the praise that Thomas receives on the offensive end, Overton's reputation as a lock-down defender is well-known too. Practices can get heated with the young guards renewing their prep rivalry every day, but Thomas understands the importance of game-like intensity has for honing their skills.
"He's a great defender," said Thomas. "Having him push me every day is making me better and I'm pushing him every day so we're both getting better. It works out in the end." Early returns on that improvement have been seen on both sides. Thomas impressed in his Husky debut with 27 points in an exhibition win over Western Washington and seems to be finding his groove as Pac-10 play approaches, averaging over 13 points per game. Overton has been a solid contributor in a new role coming off the bench after starting 26 games last year.
While the statistics show what they are bringing to the program, it's their attitude that has plenty of people excited about the future of Washington basketball. Those characteristics were an important part of their appeal to Washington and Coach Lorenzo Romar.
"They both have a swagger about them," said Romar. "They are both feisty in their own way. They both like to live up to a challenge. If you challenge them, they are going to meet that challenge...they both would get after each other. We knew that."
From high school days facing each other, to the college level of preparing one another for opponents, Overton and Thomas have been tied together throughout their basketball careers. But as they represent the purple and gold for the Huskies, their connection no longer includes a Seattle-Tacoma tension. The name on the front of their jerseys is Washington, and defeating anyone who stands in their way is the only important rivalry that matters to these two now.