''Conference Time'': Dawgs Head To WSU Feeling Renewed
Jan. 4, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - For months now Lorenzo Romar has been fielding questions about his recently depleted team's up-and-down non-conference season, about what this developing team may not have.
When he was asked Thursday if his Huskies lack a go-to scorer who can will his teammates to win under any circumstances -- starting Saturday night in the conference opener at raucous Friel Court in Pullman -- Romar felt rejuvenation.
That's because the start of play in the wide-open Pac-12 is upon him.
The veteran coach triumphantly raised both arms skyward with closed fists, like Rocky Balboa, and said with a knowing grin: "Conference time. Let's see. Everyone's back.
Yes, the Huskies (8-5) will be at full of strength when they meet Washington State (9-4) for the 275th time Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat and analysis from courtside.
Shawn Kemp Jr., who missed the season's first seven games with a torn patella tendon, is back. The 6-foot-9 power forward is coming off career bests of 4-for-9 shooting and 21 minutes last weekend in an eight-point loss at Connecticut - which would have been a UW win had it shot even a tad better than 29.7 percent.
Scott Suggs is long past the foot sprain that bothered him in November. He, fellow senior co-captain Abdul Gaddy, leading scorer C.J. Wilcox and senior 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye will each be playing their third career games at WSU.
Last February, Wilcox scored 16 points -- including the clinching free throws -- Gaddy had 10 points plus four assists and N'Diaye had seven rebounds before fouling out as Washington rallied from 13 points down with 11 minutes left to win at Washington State. That was UW's third victory in four winters in Pullman.
The veterans and their coach believe that experience will come in handy in one of the more rowdy -- and at times raunchy --- settings the Huskies face in the league. The Cougars usually have one of their largest and loudest crowds of each season at the 11,675 Beasley Coliseum when the dreaded Huskies come to town.
"It's a tough place to play," Gaddy said, before adding wryly: "Their crowd is a little bit more ... antsy."
But the Huskies may not face the most ornery or populated WSU student section they've ever seen. Classes in Pullman don't get back in session from Christmas break until Monday.
Still, Romar expects a gaggle of students to somehow again know when UW will be shooting during its walkthrough practice Saturday. Each season Coug kids line the tunnel into the arena, no matter how cold or snowy it is, to welcome their in-state rivals with, um, colorful banter as the Huskies walk from their team bus down a long ramp.
The hooting and hollering lasts for hours, well past the game's final buzzer.
"Yes, they make it festive," Romar said, smiling.
Beyond the wild scene, UW must continue to make strides defensively, especially against Washington State's scoring leader Brock Motum. Romar calls the 6-10 senior forward, who has scored at least 14 points in all of WSU's 13 games this season, perhaps the most versatile player in the conference because Motum can score from outside, score while posting up down low and make his many free throws.
"That's a tough cover," Romar said.
Desmond Simmons, Washington's hardest-nosed player, may get some of the assignments on Motum. But the Huskies spent this week going after each other in physical practices that emphasized guarding as a collective five better than they have for much of the season's first two months.
"We are making sure we are guarding the ball - as a team," Suggs said.
That means better help defense, better fight through screens, better awareness - just plain better defense. On and off the ball.
Romar says the fits and spurts of required defense have been partly due to the lack of depth early this season. That kept the Huskies from exerting fully on the defensive end for all 40 minutes, as Romar demands.
Still, the coach offers no excuses for the uneven non-conference season. He said "I didn't expect the three losses at home," to Albany, Nevada and Colorado State.
One asset the Huskies won't have with them in Pullman, or at California and Stanford next week or in any games this season is Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Huskies' record-setting, do-it-all tight end announced Thursday he will not play basketball as he did last winter. After consulting with his mother Linda and Huskies coaches Steve Sarkisian and Romar, ASJ is going to rest and stay on academics and football from now until the summer.
"I just need to focus on school and get (rested). I don't feel like I'd be able to help the basketball team much right now," Seferian-Jenkins said.
Last season Seferian-Jenkins became the first Husky to play football and hoops since Nate Robinson in 2002 and '03. He averaged 7.2 minutes banging in 17 games as a freshman last basketball season. The hoops Huskies were 11-7 before ASJ joined them - then went 13-4 and were far more physical inside with him as a most powerful forward.
Now that role to provide depth and production behind N'Diaye inside falls upon Kemp. And he seems poised to fulfill the largest role of his two seasons at UW.
Romar has called Kemp the team's best low-post scoring threat. On Thursday, the coach said though statistics - 4.8 points, 2.3 rebounds per game and just 23 shots in six games - don't suggest it yet, he believes Kemp is one of the most improved Huskies.
And as Romar said, Rocky style, what's happened up until now doesn't matter all that much anyway.
It is conference time.