Nov. 28, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE - Lorenzo Romar told the story to his team the other day.
The coach and I were discussing it again in the tunnel leading to the Alaska Airlines Arena floor minutes after last weekend's stunningly lopsided home loss to Colorado State.
It's not what the Chicken Littles can -- or even want -- to hear right now, but Romar's Huskies have been here before.
Four Novembers ago, to be exact.
"We lost to Portland on the road to begin the season," the coach said of Washington's memorable 2008-09 campaign. "We came back home and won two games at home. And then we played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City and lost to Florida and Kansas.
"We were 2-3. It was time to shut down the program at that point."
He had some clout when he told his depleted, sputtering team this tale before it got waxed on the glass 45-21 and lost 73-55 last Saturday to Colorado State. Romar has won five conference regular-season or tournament titles, made six NCAA tournaments, reached three Sweet 16s, and has been the league's coach of the year three times (including last season) in his 11 years leading UW. His 190 wins the last eight seasons is the most in school history over a span that long.
But his Huskies enter tonight's unexpectedly pivotal, 9 p.m. game against Saint Louis (3-2) having lost two consecutive home non-conference games for the first time since December 2000.
Romar wasn't around then. He was still about a year and half from replacing Bob Bender as UW's coach.
Romar has won five conference regular-season or tournament titles, made six NCAA tournaments, reached three Sweet 16s, and has been the league's coach of the year three times.
But he still vividly remembers the last time the Huskies were where they find themselves today, at 2-3 with people criticizing his team, his program, his choice of suits - you name it.
"It was bad around here. It was bad," Romar said. "Because we were coming off two years when we hadn't been to the NCAA tournament. Didn't make any postseasons - except the CBI."
What did Washington do from there?
Turns out Romar didn't shut down the program, after all.
Those Huskies won their next nine games and 13 of the next 14, the only loss coming in triple overtime to California. They ended up 24-6 the rest of that season, 14-4 in the Pac-10. They won their first outright regular-season conference title in a half century. They got ranked as high as 13th before they beat Mississippi State in first round of the NCAAs and lost by two to Purdue in the second round.
"You know me, I always see the silver lining," Romar said of that last 2-3 start. "We won the league championship for the first time in 53 years. And that's what people remember.
"We remind our team now about that. It was early. Really early."
OK, time for the rub: Those 2008-09 Huskies had Jon Brockman, the best rebounder in the program's history, willing them back from that slow start. They had Quincy Pondexter emerging as a star that eventually joined Brockman as an NBA draft pick. They had Justin Dentmon re-establishing himself late that season as an indispensible asset outside.
And, oh, yeah, they had a diminutive freshman point guard with a determination and personality larger than Hec Edmundson Pavilion. You may have heard of Isaiah Thomas.
Yet those guys lost at Portland to start that '08-09 season, the one that began Washington's current streak of four consecutive league regular-season or conference tournament championships.
These Huskies have lost at home to Albany, gone to Connecticut to beat Seton Hall and hang with No. 4 Ohio State before eventually losing by 11 in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament, then returned home to lose by 18 to Colorado State.
"Are we accepting what has happened? No way whatsoever. It should never have happened," Romar said. "(But) we are going to be all right. We've got guys coming back. We've got guys coming off injuries that are going to be able to help our team.
"We've got to continue to work, continue to get better."
In the tunnel Saturday, on his way back onto the court to talk to Bob Rondeau and Jason Hamilton on the Huskies' radio postgame show, Romar said: "I really try to stay away from excuses, but that ('08-09 team) team didn't have any injuries."
Oh, yes, the injuries.
Are we accepting what has happened? No way whatsoever. But we are going to be all right. We've got guys coming off injuries that are going to be able to help our team.
THE KEYS: REBOUNDING. AND GADDY.
Scott Suggs will miss his second consecutive game and third in five starts tonight. He had a concussion earlier this month. Now he has a tear in the tendon across the arch of his right foot. He was shuffling along on crutches Tuesday to the training room still wearing a protective boot. Romar says his senior co-captain, outside scorer and steady veteran defender is more "week to week" than he is day to day.
Shawn Kemp Jr. has yet to play this regular season after tearing a patella (knee) tendon. He may not return until later in December. Romar calls him the team's best low-post scoring threat.
Think the 6-foot-9 sophomore power forward may have been able to help Aziz N'Diaye in what seemed like a one-against-five fight for rebounds last weekend? Not to mention the scoring boost he and Suggs will provide when they get healthy, expectedly before Pac-12 play begins Jan. 5 at Washington State.
"We're talking 20 to 25 more points per game if those guys play," Romar said.
C.J. Wilcox tried to do it all himself against Colorado State, slashing to a career-high 28 points while taking a career-high 25 shots. The junior sharpshooter will need to stay more aggressive driving to the rim as Suggs remains out and opponents' scouting reports demand Wilcox's outside shot be taken away.
Here's what else needs to happen:
- First and foremost, as with all Romar squads, defense must carry the team. It usually takes the Huskies until January to fully execute the nuances of playing help and deny, man-to-man defense the way their coach wants. The sooner the better this season. Romar is going to try to accelerate that progress by featuring this longer, taller roster's strengths more. He's going to stick N'Diaye and 6-10 redshirt freshman Jernard Jarreau inside more zone sets, likely beginning tonight.
- Andrew Andrews needs to take full advantage of the green light Romar is giving the redshirt freshman to penetrate and score. Andrews is a fearless, almost brash scorer who was the Oregon Class 5A state co-player of the year two seasons ago at Benson Tech in Portland. He scored 41 points in the state high school championship game. He's an unknown weapon overdue for deployment. He's made just six of 24 shots so far this season while averaging 25 minutes per game backing up and playing with point guard Abdul Gaddy.
- Desmond Simmons needs to become a rebounding force to help the 7-foot N'Diaye down low. Simmons is 6-7 and valuable making scrapping hustle plays all over the floor. But N'Diaye currently has more than 34 percent of the team's rebounding total (55 of the team's 163 total boards) while playing 15.6 percent of UW's total minutes. Aziz can't box out three guys at once. Simmons must be the second force on the glass until Kemp returns - and beyond that. Simmons is averaging 5.8 rebounds per game to N'Diaye's 11.0. "I feel like I underachieved as far as rebounding," he said after grabbing four against Colorado State.
- Gaddy must become Thomas-like. Not in his game; there aren't many as bodacious and skilled as I.T. But Gaddy needs to become more forceful in his personality, on and off the floor, with this younger, developing team. Gaddy, Thomas' friend and fellow Tacoma native spent the previous three years playing with cool poise while letting the more dominant personalities of Isaiah and, last season, Tony Wroten, lead. Now Gaddy knows he needs to be more aggressive.
Some of that is by necessity, with Suggs out. Some of it is also Gaddy acting upon the message Romar sent Saturday. The coach had his senior co-captain spend the final half-dozen or so minutes of the Colorado State loss on the bench next to him. Romar explained to Gaddy how he should not have allowed his 4-for-12 shooting day from the field carry into his 0-for-3 performance at the foul line and multiple defensive lapses.
Romar says Gaddy has "really stepped it up vocally" this week.
"Just talking to guys, making sure we keep our heads in it," Gaddy said. "We know it's a long season. It's not a marathon, it's a sprint. That's the main thing."
"ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN"
Gaddy has vowed to ensure there will be no repeat in March of what happened last spring, the Huskies being stunned at being left out of the NCAA tournament despite winning another conference title.
Now, while the Dawgs seek to stay afloat until Suggs and Kemp return, is the time for Gaddy to make good on that assurance.
And he knows it.
"I'm the captain of the team, and everybody looks to me for certain answers," he said Tuesday. "We are 2-3 right now, but anything can happen. It can easily turn around. Or it can easily go to 2-6, which we don't want to have happen.
"Now, we know how bad we can be. We know that if we don't bring it things like that (last weekend) can happen. ... (Saint Louis) resembles a lot of other teams we will be facing down the road. It will be a good test for us."
Abdul's been good, very good for months. So we're not going to throw out everything for one game.
Beyond all that, beyond waiting for Suggs to return in a week or two and Kemp next month, I asked Romar if there are any parallels he can draw between this 2-3 team and the one that turned around so historically four seasons ago.
"I just think it took a while," he said. "Isaiah Thomas was a freshman, had the ball in his hand a lot. Had to mature and grow. Late in that year Justin Dentmon came on. Some guys stepped up. Quincy started to step up, played really well."
I asked him if that what he is now looking for Gaddy to do for this team, step up and lead it back.
"He will," Romar said after the Colorado State loss. "Again, Gregg, you know I am a guy of patterns. And this was one game. Abdul's been good, very good for months. So we're not going to throw out everything for one game."
They are, however, going to throw everything they have into tonight's game against a Saint Louis team that whacked them in Missouri 12 months ago. And into the next seven games that are all in Seattle before UW plays at Connecticut Dec. 29, too.
It's time to make up for a sputtering November.
Time to make like it's 2008-09 all over again.
"Come back. Regroup, Understand we can't keep saying it's early in the season because it won't be after a while - but it is early," Romar said.
"I think our guys will come back with more of a physical presence."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.