Washington is looking to rebound after a disappointing 2007-08 season that saw the Huskies finish 16-17, including a 71-72 first-round loss to Valparaiso in the inaugural College Basketball Invitational. Hopes are high as the November 15th opener at Portland draws closer.
"This has taken far too long to get here. For me, other than our first year here - it was a new job, so you're really excited to take on a new program, a new challenge - I think this year, in anticipation for the opening practice, I'm as excited as I've been since I've been here to get going," said Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar. "I think this team has a lot more answers going into the year than our teams have had in the last three years. This year we know what we have. We know there are some pieces that are in place going into the season. Is that going to translate into a great season? I don't know. But I know that going into the season, there are a lot less questions that need to be answered."
A big reason for Romar's high expectations - play makers.
"I think we have more play makers. A lot of times when you think of play makers, you think of a point guard. That's not necessarily what I'm talking about. Larry Bird was a forward and was a play maker. Dennis Rodman didn't score, but he was a play maker," explained Romar. "I think we've got more guys that can make plays, more guys that can go out and get deflections, more guys that can go out and create and set others up, more guys that can break down the defense when someone's defending you really well. Experience and guard play, I think we have more of it on both accounts."
While there may be less questions heading into the season, Romar knows there are questions nonetheless.
"The jury is still out on how good of shooting team we're going to be. I would like to see us have more of a defensive mentality before we're involved in any defensive drill. I want to see more guys say 'man I want to get down and stop some people'," expressed Romar. "I'd say those two areas are areas that we're going to have to make sure that we take care of. Again, I don't want to come across as if this is the year we're going to win it all, I didn't say that. Going into the year, I feel better about this team in terms of there being less questions that need to be answered. Is that good enough to do really well? We'll see what happens."
The road through the Pac-10 is never easy, but this season should be easier for the Huskies. A total of 12 Pac-10 players were drafted in the 2008 NBA Draft, including five in the first 11 selections. However, Romar isn't buying into the talk that the Pac-10 is down.
"I wouldn't argue that maybe it may not be as strong from top to bottom as last year," said Romar. "But in terms of being down, no way, it's not down."
Leading the way for the Huskies this season is senior forward Jon Brockman. Last season, Brockman averaged 17.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, earning him his second all-Pac-10 selection and second Pac-10 rebounding title. With 11.6 boards per game, Brockman returns as the nation's leading rebounder. Brockman worked hard in the off-season, and Romar has certainly taken notice.
"I've been talking a lot about our strength coach Matt Ludwig. He's worked with our guys and literally has transformed as if some guys' bodies are made of putty - kind of messed with them and adjusted over the spring and summer," said Romar. "Jon is one of those. Jon is 250-pounds but he looks like he's about 230-pounds. He's got a sleek look about him now. If anything, he's stronger but yet he's quicker. And he is highly, highly motivated."
Husky fans have been waiting for junior Quincy Pondexter to live up to his potential since he's been on campus. After averaging 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season, Romar believes Pondexter may be ready to heed the call.
"Let's back up to last year. In our last seven games against Pac-10 competition, he averaged 13 and half points and seven rebounds per game, so stop right here, he improved. I know it's only seven games, but seven rebounds would be the second best average for anyone that's put on a Husky uniform in six years. You just stop right there, he's already improved," expressed Romar. "But on top of that, he's gotten himself into great condition, he's gotten himself stronger. You can look at him physically and he's stronger. Additional strength has provided him additional confidence. Right now, he's going right at people."
The Huskies' third returning starter is senior guard Justin Dentmon, who Romar believes will have a solid season after a topsy turvy career at Montlake.
"Justin has had his ups and downs during his college career, but he is a senior. He did have some really good games last year and we know he had a very good freshman year, so he's capable of doing some things out there," said Romar. "I think with Justin this year, there's going to be other play makers out there with him, so the entire load of making plays won't be on his shoulders. I think that's going to help Justin."
A couple of those play makers Romar speaks of are freshman guard Isaiah Thomas and sophomore forward Justin Holliday, who's impact doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
"He can shoot it, he can pass it and he can handle it. We haven't had an over abundance of guards that can do that in the last couple of years," expressed Romar. "We've had guards that could do certain things, but to be able to perform multiple skills as a guard - Isaiah is capable of doing those things. But I don't think Isaiah is the only guy on our team that can do that. I think we have others that can do that now.
"The great thing about Justin Holliday is his versatility. Like Bobby Jones, he can guard just about anyone on the floor. Three times last year, he was about to be in our rotation, because he did such a good job defensively. He gets his hands on a lot of balls, he gets a lot of deflections and he's hard to box out because he's so quick," explained Romar. "He does a lot of little things that impact winning. His role is to that for us. We may have run three plays for Bobby Jones in four years, but three of those years, he averaged double figures, because he was around the action. Justin Holliday is a lot like that."
Romar talked about the strengths of sophomore forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning and incoming freshmen Scott Suggs and Elston Turner. Bryan-Amaning played in Europe over the summer, which Romar feels has helped his confidence.
"I think his experience this summer helped him with his confidence. He came back a confident basketball player," said Romar. "He's one of those guys, that on paper, is a monster. As he builds out and plays in the games, he can live up to the expectations we have for him. He'll make us a very good basketball team.
"Elston Turner and Scott Suggs, even though they're 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6, they can shoot it, handle it and pass it. In a pinch, either one can play point guard. They're not point guards, but in a pinch, either one could go out and play the point for you, because they can handle the basketball," expressed Romar. "They're not limited wings, one-dimensional wings. They're play makers at the guard spot. That is something we haven't had an abundance of in the last couple of years."
Romar also spoke of incoming freshman, forward Tyreese Breshers, who is still recovering from a broken shin.
"Understand, the last time he ran consistently, by that I mean three days in a row, is March. He played last season with a broken shin. He sat out and waited for it to get better. The doctor looked at it, put him in a boot cast, was in that for quite some time. He took the cast off and thought he was cleared to play. Our doctors looked at him and said no you're not ok. He decided and the doctors decided to get surgery. Right now, he is just getting back to where he's able to hopefully play five on five, half court next week," explained Romar. "I say all that to say if he can get into condition, I think he might surprise some people with how much of an impact he'll have on our team. He is extremely strong and knows how to move his body. He's the kind of guy that can catch the ball in traffic, bring it down and go right back up and he's in the rim. He's a very good shot blocker. If he can get himself into condition, he will help us tremendously."
The Huskies experienced a lot of success playing an up tempo brand of basketball. However, Washington moved away from that style of play the last two seasons, due to lack of personnel more than anything. However, Romar feels the Huskies are moving closer to playing run-and-gun basketball again.
"You can't be an up tempo team if your'e not forcing bad shots and turnovers. You can try, which we have. You're not going to be a great up tempo team if you don't have the offensive players to push it up the floor and finish it on the other end. I think we've been a little deficient in those areas the last couple of years," explained Romar. "Spencer's [Hawes] freshman year, we were very young then. I didn't think we were really good defensively - I don't think we've been really good the last two years. I think before that, we pressured teams into making mistakes. That allowed us to get out on the run. When we got out and ran, you could throw it up and somebody would score. We haven't had that luxury the last two years. This year, I think we're moving closer toward the situation three years ago."
Regardless of their style of play, Romar feels the Huskies will be tested tough from the get go this season.
"Right away we have a dangerous dangerous game, and that's not coach's manipulative talk at all. We play at Portland - that's the first time that we'll open on the road since we've been here. We were up by three with about three minutes to go on our own home floor last year against Portand. They have their entire roster back, they didn't lose anyone, and now we're going to their place for this opener, that's a dangerous game," expressed Romar. "Then we're in the College Basketball Experience Classic. We open with Cleveland State, who's picked to win their league. We then play Florida International and Kansas, the defending national champs. Then we play either Florida or Syracuse, come back home against Pacific and Oklahoma State. So right off the bat we've got our work cut out for us in our non conference."
"I expect this team to do really well - I don't know what that means. I expect that at the end of the year, we'll look back and say that this was a fun year. I don't know what that's going to look like, but I know we've got a group that's as close as we've had in the last few years," expressed Romar. "We've got a group that has more versatility than we've had. The thing that really sticks out, when we're in our drills, five on five, is our speed and quickness. That has been lacking the last couple of years, but that won't be a problem this year."
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