Unleashed: We've Seen This Before
Dec. 14, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE -Relax, Huskies hoops fans.
No Dawgs are panicking -- at least not those who shoot, pass, dribble, and defend. They aren't overhauling lineups and changing strategies. They see no need for, as coach Lorenzo Romar put it, a "boot camp."
Even after three consecutive losses, the last two in New York to No. 11 Marquette and seventh-ranked Duke, these young Huskies are not alarmed.
It's not that they are settling for so-called moral victories from coming close against two national powers.
It's that they have perspective.
"We saw the best competition we're going to see this year while in New York," sophomore sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox said Monday, reiterating what he said inside Madison Square Garden on Saturday moments after a frantic rally from 19 points down fell short in an 86-80 loss to Duke.
"We know where we have to get."
The veterans have lived through Washington's habit of starting slowly for most of the last decade. Gant, a fifth-year senior, has been through this four times.
So he knows what he's talking about before the 4-4 Huskies host UC-Santa Barbara (5-2) Friday night.
"We're all moving in the right direction, even though we lost those games," Gant says.
Eight of Romar's 10 seasons at Washington have started this way. That is, as slowly as I-5 through downtown Seattle at rush hour.
Most Novembers and Decembers, losses to high-profile and not-so-profiled teams have made Huskies fans fret over what might become of the season. The only exceptions were in 2004 when UW won the Great Alaska Shootout, and in 2005 when it went undefeated in non-conference play without visiting an opponent's floor.
"Unfortunately," Romar acknowledged Monday, "we have gone through this."
His first season at UW began with losses to Montana State and at UNLV and Gonzaga in 2002. There were losses to Gonzaga and at Wyoming and at Houston in '03. At Gonzaga in early December `06. To Texas A&M and Syracuse at Madison Square Garden in the Preseason NIT then a blowout loss at Oklahoma State, all to begin the 2007-08 season.
The Huskies lost at Portland, then to Kansas and Florida in two marquee games in Kansas City, Mo., to begin '08 - then a few months later won their first outright conference regular-season title in a half century. They lost at Texas A&M and to Georgetown in '09, and ended up winning the Pac-10 tournament. And last season began with high-profile defeats against Kentucky and Michigan State at the Maui Invitational in November, then at Texas A&M in December - before another Pac-10 tournament title.
The Huskies have won three Pac-10 tournament championships under Romar. They have reached six NCAA tournaments and three Sweet 16s in those nine previous, slow-starting seasons.
So in other words ... exhale. And trust.
`THIS IS NOT A BOOT-CAMP SITUATION'
Romar told us in October this may happen. A team that lost its all-conference soul in Isaiah Thomas plus veterans Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton wasn't going to roll on without a few bumps.
A team with seven freshmen - two of whom, Andrew Andrews and Jernard Jarreau, are redshirting - plus a point guard, Gaddy, returning months earlier than expected from two torn knee ligaments wasn't going to be nearly as lethal in November and December as it will be in February and March.
If I had a dollar for every time Romar has said freshmen usually don't begin figuring his system and way of playing until about January, my 8-year-olds might already have college paid for.
To put it another way: Tony Wroten scored 23 points against Duke in just his eighth college game. How much better will the dynamic but sometimes erratic freshman be eight games from now? And eight games after that, in February?
How much will Gaddy be back to his old, smooth and efficient self months into playing on his reconstructed knee, instead of weeks? Think of how much stronger N'Diaye will be inside further removed from the knee sprain he sustained against Duke, which will likely have him miss the next three games. Think about how much more aggressive the already bullish Simmons will become battling for rebounds.
College basketball isn't like football, where each game of a relatively short season can make or break a championship chance. Hoops teams that are the best by the end of a 30-game regular season go farthest in the play-your-way-in NCAA tournament.
Yet even as-is, the developing Huskies came within one mistake in defending a last-second screen and shot from beating undefeated Marquette Dec. 6, Washington's best-played game this season to date. Then they out-played Duke for stretches of the second half, but only after falling in an early hole too large to escape last weekend.
"When I said earlier in the year there would be some ups and downs with our team, I don't know if people believed me or not," Romar said of the youngest group he's had at Washington.
They believe him now. They have ever since the sobering, blowout loss at Saint Louis on Nov. 20, when the Huskies didn't defend, didn't have patience against a tough defense and didn't rebound.
"We've been getting better each week from the Saint Louis game. This team has gotten MUCH better from that game," Romar said. "I think that's a positive when you look back to previous years and how we've gotten better.
"So I think we are headed in that direction."
So no, despite fans' panic and concern over losing at Nevada in overtime, then to Marquette and to Duke, Romar isn't dismantling his proven system. Nor should he. It's one that has Washington on its longest run of sustained success since Hec Edmundson was its coach and not just its home building. That was in the 1920s and `30s.
"We just have to get better doing what we do," Romar said. "We have more cleanup work to do than just a boot-camp situation. This is not a boot-camp situation. There are some details here and there we need to work on."
On the surface, the New York trip wasn't a success. The Huskies were 0-2 on the grandest indoor stage in American sports. They lost two showcases, two chances to raise their national stock and NCAA tournament resume before retreating into the Pac-12 schedule that still might as well be played in China in the minds of viewers, poll voters and tournament committee members on the East Coast.
Yet teams and seasons evolve from November to March. They involve far more than just the surface.
And that's where the New York trip will ultimately pay off for UW.
`WE CAN HANG WITH ANYBODY'
When asked what his team learned in the two games against top-11 teams last week, Romar said: "That we can compete with anyone."
"We have to finish games," the coach said. "If we are able to do that and continue to grow, we have a chance to be really good by the end of the year.
"I just think we made progress. In spite of two losses, there was a little more of a belief in ourselves that we were able to get. I'm not talking about moral victories at all. I'm talking about knowing what we are capable of if we do things right."
The Huskies went down to Marquette because they didn't get back on defense, allowing the Golden Eagles at least 10 uncontested points in a game UW lost by two. They lost to Duke because they played as though they were shocked to be there in the first 15 minutes then had too far to climb back into the game.
Yet the Huskies gained more than confidence in staying with the big boys, more than just experience on a grand stage in Madison Square Garden. They discovered new versatility.
Against Marquette, they found out Ross could dominate a rugged opponent. Against Duke, the found a smaller, four-guard lineup could rally them against the nation's seventh-ranked team. Once N'Diaye got hurt with 19 minutes left, Romar went primarily with Ross, Wroten, Gaddy, and Wilcox on the floor with Gant, the lone front-court player. Pressing, slashing and scoring, the Huskies turned a 19-point hole with 8 minutes left into a six-point game in the final minute.
"We know what need to do to be successful. Now we know it's the little things," Ross said.
The games in New York also more clearly defined Ross and Wroten as go-to guys late in taut games. That's a role Washington has had to worry about filling in years, since the brash and determined Thomas got to campus.
Against Marquette, Ross had 19 points on 9-for-14 shooting with nine rebounds. During time outs late in that game, Romar was calling plays for his dynamic, 6-6 sophomore, sending him to the low post with the game on the line to exploit his size advantage over Marquette's guards. Ross filled the role, bulling into the lane and scoring from about 8 feet to give the Huskies the lead 77-76 with 13 seconds remaining.
Against Duke, Wroten emerged as the Huskies' main man. He was almost Thomas-like in the second half, scoring 14 of his career-high 23 points and simply taking the ball to the basket while blowing by stunned and flat-footed Blue Devils.
And he's not even starting. Not yet.
(By the way, those clamoring `Why isn't Wroten starting?' forget that Brandon Roywasn't a starter in his freshman season under Romar at UW following knee surgery, which Wroten also had before he joined the Huskies. Romar didn't exactly ruin Roy by not starting him right away in that 2002-03 season. All Roy did was become an All-American, Pac-10 player of the year, NBA Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star - and one of only two Huskies with a retired jersey high above inside Alaska Airlines Arena.)
Again, what was that Romar says about freshman and figuring it out by January?
"Now, everybody's trying to decide, `Who is going to be the go-to guy? Who is going to take the big shot?'" Romar said. "I think we made a lot of progress in New York figuring that stuff out."
The Huskies have three games, including home ones against South Dakota State Sunday and Cal State Northridge on Dec. 22, before the Pac-12 season begins Dec. 29 against Oregon State. They need to get back more quickly in transition defense. They need to find a defensive stopper like Holiday was the previous two seasons - Ross and Wilcox are working on becoming that. They need to be more patient and make extra passes in half-court sets, and to get used to playing with four guards while N'Diaye recovers from his sprained knee.
But they don't need to start over.
"We know where we need to be," Wilcox said on his way out of Madison Square Garden following his 22-point Saturday against Duke.
His head was up, as high as the Huskies' potential for this still-young season.
"We can compete with anybody."
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.