Being At Top Doesn't Afford Huskies Time To Relax
Feb. 7, 2012
By Gregg Bell
That was in early 2005.
Yes, surging Washington (16-7, 9-2 Pac-12) is alone atop the league heading into Thursday's 8 p.m. test at third-place Oregon (16-7, 7-4) on ROOT Sports/Fox Sport Net television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive game chat from Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.
So what, Lorenzo Romar says.
He has yet in 17 seasons as a head coach been awarded a trophy for leading anything in February.
"You would think, `Well, you are 9-2. You are a full game ahead with seven games left. You should feel like you are in the driver's seat.' I don't feel like that at all," Romar said with a chuckle before practice Tuesday at Alaska Airlines Arena. "Maybe because we've been digging ourselves out of a hole all season long, I still feel like we are digging ourselves out of a hole."
Or maybe it's because he knows what his Huskies have in front of them.
Five of their final seven conference games are on the road, beginning at Oregon and then Sunday at Oregon State. Washington lost at both places last February -- and that was with a more veteran, accomplished team, one with three current pros that came within a final play of beating North Carolina in the third round of the NCAA tournament and reaching the Sweet 16 last spring.
After the Oregon trip that begins with the short, post-practice flight to Eugene Wednesday evening, the Huskies host Arizona State (3-8 in the league) and Arizona (7-4 after a win at Cal) on Feb. 16 and 18. UW finishes the regular season at Washington State (4-7) the following weekend, and at USC (1-10) and UCLA (6-5) to begin March.
Washington is a game up on California and Colorado in the Pac-12, where two games separate the top five teams.
"I mean, we have a tough stretch coming up here," said Romar, who is 4-5 in Eugene during the coach's UW tenure but has won two of his last three games at Oregon. "In two weeks, we could be in fifth place - literally - while still having played pretty good basketball.
"We're going to Oregon this week, and we (always) have a tough time with them," Romar said, shaking his head. "For me -- you are asking about me -- I don't feel we can relax at all."
Yes, Thursday night will be anything but relaxing.
"There is a lot at stake," Romar said. "I would say there is a lot to be gained for whoever wins this game."
The Ducks feel they are a debatable foul call just before the final buzzer last weekend at Colorado from being in second place and a game behind the Huskies.
They feel their always raucous, especially Husky-hating fans will be in top form Thursday in the same, sparkling arena where Oregon beat Washington last February.
And the Ducks know they are a better team than the one the Huskies beat 76-60 on New Year's Eve in Seattle. It was Washington's 14th win in the last 20 games of the series that began in 1904 and includes UW's win last March in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament.
The Huskies sure know these Ducks have vastly improved over the last month-plus. Romar notes how Oregon's starting five is perhaps the most experienced in the league, far more experienced than Washington's lineup. The Huskies have two first-year starters (Tony Wroten and Desmond Simmons) and two second-year ones (Terrence Ross and Aziz N'Diaye).
"Oregon trips always worry me, and I know it always worries Coach," lone scholarship senior and captain Darnell Gant said. "It's going to be big. We are both in the running for the Pac-12 title. ... We know it's going to be a good game and we have to be focused."
When they met on the opening weekend of conference play, the Huskies played one their finer defensive games of the season. They were better on the ball, better on help-side defense - and excellent against Devoe Joseph. Oregon's leading scorer at 15.8 points per game scored a season-low four against Washington Dec. 31.
Oregon will again test Washington's ability to close out on 3-point shooters. The Ducks are second in the Pac-12 making 6.9 3-pointers per game.
The last time UW was keenly worried about defending the 3 was two weeks ago heading to Arizona. The Huskies then held the Wildcats, who had were 15 of 26 on 3's in their previous game, to just 4-for-13 shooting from deep as Washington won 69-67.
That huge victory inside an ear-splitting mad house in Tucson has the Huskies far more prepared for their tasks this weekend in Eugene and Corvallis - and in Pullman, Los Angeles and beyond, for that matter.
"After Arizona I was asking all my teammates and they told me that was the loudest place they've ever played in. I feel if we can win there we can win anywhere," said Wroten, the Huskies' leading scorer at 16.7 points per game.
"Oregon's a great team, a great school. But if we do what we are supposed to we can win anywhere."
Wroten is still sore from the bruised thigh he sustained Thursday against UCLA, though he returned two nights later to play 29 minutes and lead UW with 13 points, six rebounds, eight assists and just one turnover in the 69-41 victory over the Trojans.
Wroten was hit in the thigh on a drive early in the win over UCLA but played on. He said he feels the worst during halftime when his injured quadriceps stiffens.
The latest injury has the 6-foot-5 guard wearing thigh pads to match the ones covering his elbows and forearms since a hard fall while getting fouled Jan. 15 against Seattle University. And, oh, yeah, he's wearing sleeves over each calf.
"I look like a football player," Wroten said.
Asked how healthy Wroten is, Romar shrugged and said, "Uh, good enough."
Can you tell it's February?
C.J. Wilcox played just 14 minutes in the blowout of USC, Washington's 11th victory in 13 games. He continues to work through a stress fracture in his upper left leg. The sophomore sharpshooter, the Huskies' third-leading scorer behind Wroten and Ross, is not practicing again this week but will play at Oregon. He is, however, shooting more on the side this week, more than the 50 jump shots a day to which he was limited last week.
Those injuries are why Romar is thinking his Huskies are in more of a catapult seat more a driver's one in this wide-open conference race.
How does he compare this Huskies squad to that 2005 one with Robinson, Conroy, Simmons and Roy that went to 10-2 in the league - then finished 14-4 in the Pac-10 and ultimately reached the Sweet 16 of that season's NCAA tournament?
"That 2005 team when it was 9-2 it was on a roll by now," Romar said. "It was more of well-oiled machine by now. It had hit its stride by now.
"This team has not hit a stride yet. Hopefully, we can."
And when will we know if it has?
"It's just kind of a feel you get when you walk out onto the floor. You have every one, to a man, from your best players to the managers, you just kind of just punch in," Romar said, clicking his fingers as if in a routine. "You punch in on the clock, and you just know this is what's going to happen. ... We knew where we were headed."
These first-place Huskies aren't sure where they will end up.
But they do have their hard hats packed for Oregon.