It's been known for quite some time that this season had the potential to be a landmark year for the program. Washington is loaded with All-Pac-10 caliber veterans, who form the core of what should be the strongest defensive rotation Washington has ever fielded. By the sounds of it, Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar is every bit as excited as his players to get underway.
"I can't wait," he shared enthusiastically during a recent interview with Dawgman.com. "It's been such a long summer from a coaching perspective. On one hand, the summer's been a blur, but as far as being in the gym and spending time with our guys and being able to work, develop and get better, it's taken forever so I'm quite anxious to get going."
For the first time since Brandon Roy graduated, the Huskies are one of the most experienced teams in the conference, led by a cadre of impressive juniors and seniors, including lead guard and team co-Captain, Isaiah Thomas. The former Curtis High School star has inherited the leadership role vacated by forward Quincy Pondexter, now playing for the New Orleans Hornets of the NBA.
"I've said many times that Isaiah is more of a winner than many people give him credit for," said Romar of his pint-sized point man. "Since he's been here we've won a Pac-10 conference championship, a tournament championship and in two years he's scored more points than anyone in the history of the program." Last season, Thomas upped his scoring average to 16.9 points a game, but it was his maturation as a leader over the course of the year that drew the biggest raves. "That's no coincidence," added Romar. "He's made an impact, we won ball games and went to the Sweet Sixteen with him playing a lot of minutes."
And this season, Thomas has an awful lot of help.
"Justin Holiday is emerging as a big time leader on this team," said Romar regarding his senior co-Captain. "You can just see that he does so many things well. He's worked on his shot and he's become a good shooter to where when he's open I feel like the ball is going in." Holiday's finest performance last season may have come in Washington's final game of last season, a Sweet Sixteen loss to West Virginia in which he scored fourteen points, grabbed eight rebounds, adding five steals and a couple of blocked shots to cap his 34 minutes of work. "He's a great defender, a good passer and just knows how to win," added Romar.
The Huskies also return arguably the most dangerous on-ball defender in the country - former Franklin High School star Venoy Overton.
"Venoy as a senior is going to be really dangerous for opponents," suggested Romar. "In the past where he may have gambled, I think he'll be more selective and when he gambles he'll pick his spots. I think he'll be a nightmare for opponents this year because he's just so fast and quick and plays with such heart. He comes into the game and teams are bringing their big guys out to screen him at half court, the ball handlers turn their back to him when their bringing it up. You can tell he's on peoples' minds when he comes into the game."
One area Husky fans hope to see big improvement is underneath the hoop, with London native Matthew Bryan-Amaning patrolling the paint. Bryan-Amaning was a revelation during the second half of the season, scoring in double figures in ten of the Huskies final fourteen games. Husky fans can expect to see the 6-foot-9 forward showcase an expanded offensive arsenal, while utilizing his blazing speed in transition.
"Right now, Matthew is extremely confident," said Romar. "I think he'll start out not unlike Quincy did, which is to pick up right where he left off last season."
The Huskies also feature a couple of athletic veterans eager to make their mark on the rotation. Junior forward Darnell Gant started as a freshman but was relegated to reserve status last season. "Darnell's really improved and we're expecting big things from him this year," Romar said. Added muscle and a polished jumper should enable the 6-foot-8 native of California to make a more well-rounded impact beyond his versatile defensive skills.
One player who has generated a ton of talk during the off-season is junior guard Scott Suggs. The exceptionally athletic 6-foot-6 swingman arrived to summer workouts reinvigorated, playing with a fire and intensity mostly absent during his first two seasons. "Right now, Scott is playing like a veteran," explained Romar. "He plays like he knows what to expect and he's playing with a lot of confidence." If Suggs' efforts on the defensive end can match his stellar offensive repertoire, he has the potential to be one of the Pac-10's biggest surprises.
As good as Washington's established players may be, it's the raw potential that could end up being the difference between meeting last season's Sweet Sixteen success and taking the program to an elite level in college basketball. Coach Romar is dialed in from a recruiting standpoint, and with just 11 scholarship players, several underclassman are expected to play key roles this season.
Aziz N'Daiye is a difference-maker, bringing a new dimension never seen before at Washington and he's already made quite an impression on his new head coach.
"For one, Aziz is so coachable. He wants to learn and has a great work ethic," Romar said. N'Daiye possesses a sculpted 7-foot, 260-pound frame, and enjoys imposing his will on opponents. "Today, right now, if we were to go play a game he's going to control that paint on the defensive end," predicted Romar. "He's intimidating, he understands his role and he's a guy offensively that goes up strong. We haven't had a guy like this before.
"We've had a guy like Jon Brockman who's physical, but he's 6-7 - where Aziz is physical and 7 feet tall and can really run the floor. He is so on point with everything. You ask him to do something and it's done. You give him a deadline, and it's done before the deadline. He wants to do the right thing and it means so much to him to be the best he can be. From day one he was telling guys they needed to hustle back on defense and run the floor. At 7 feet tall, he'll dive on the floor and give up his body at the drop of a hat."
The Huskies are also expecting marked improvement from sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy. Gaddy had some serious catching up to do physically after starting college a year earlier than most players his age. He's shed 10 pounds and is shooting the ball more comfortably as well. "Abdul has gotten quicker over the summer," said Romar. "It's evident when we go out and do drills that he's improved his quickness."
Another newcomer to the rotation is redshirt freshman CJ Wilcox, who has already developed quite a cult following based on early reports of his impressive shooting acumen. Those rumors happen to be true.
"He doesn't miss very often," stated Romar, matter-of-factly. "He's a really good shooter, he knows he's a good shooter and his teammates know he's a good shooter. When he's open anywhere on the floor, our guys find him because they know the ball is probably going to go in the basket when he shoots it."
And though observers have been quick to pigeonhole him strictly as a shooter, he's got a lot more to offer the Huskies than that. "He isn't just a standstill shooter either," Romar said. "He has quick feet, he can run and he has an uncanny knack for finding open areas on the floor. Teams are going to key on him because he's such a good shooter. If defenders close on him too hard, he can drive and go right around them and get up off the floor and dunk the ball. He's got quick enough feet where he can be an excellent defender as well."
Though not a flashy recruit, Desmond Simmons' qualities immediately define him as pure Husky and the kind of player that has flourished under Romar. "He a hard worker and a guy that you look at the stat sheet after the game and wonder where he got 17 points and 10 rebounds; you don't remember how he did it," described Romar of Simmons' game.
The comparisons to Holiday and Bobby Jones are obvious, and he is probably more offensively polished than either of them were when they arrived as freshmen. Checking in at 6-foot-7, Simmons has the ball skills to handle the rock in the open floor and knock down three-pointers when left alone. "He's so efficient, works hard and he just gets things done. He's another guy with the will and passion to be the best," added Romar.
Simmons recently had a knee scope done and is expected to be back the first week of practice.
The Huskies made a splash with their final commitment of the 2010 period in star Portland wing Terrence Ross. Standing 6-foot-6, Ross has been away from basketball for nearly a year after transfer rules prevented him from playing his senior year of high school basketball. It hasn't taken long for him to leave an impression on his college coaching staff. Already a stellar three-point shooter, Ross possesses blazing quick feet for a player his height, and has the potential to be a standout defender in time.
"People are going to like Terrence Ross," said Romar. "He's probably the best athlete on the team. Justin Holiday and Venoy would challenge him in that regard but he's really a high level athlete."
That's heady praise for Ross when compared to a team absolutely loaded with spectacular athletes. "There's no doubt, top to bottom, this is the most athletic team we've had," professed Romar.
But there's more to this team than athleticism
"I think we can be better defensively than last year," added Romar confidently. "And I think we'll have more weapons offensively. Last year it was pretty much Quincy and Isaiah and other guys here and there who would chip in. This year I think we'll have more guys making bigger contributions night in and night out."
The Huskies also possess a team skill that Husky fans haven't seen in a while.
"I think this year we'll have the best outside shooting we've had since I've been here," Romar speculated. "You take CJ, Scott Suggs, Terrence Ross, Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday and Isaiah, who is streaky and can hit four or five on any given night, we've got multiple three point shooters this year, and we haven't had that since the days of Nate (Robinson) and Tre (Simmons)."
Consider it just another dimension to an already versatile, dangerous team.
All of the superlatives aside, the stars might be aligned for the Huskies to leave their stamp on the national college basketball landscape this season. They're balanced, with several tournament-tested veteran standouts, while possessing a host of young talent chomping at the bit to make their mark. As long as the front court stays healthy, they've got legitimate Top-5, even Final Four potential. But forget the hype; the Husky players and coaches know what's at stake: Nothing less than the opportunity to cement the University of Washington's reputation as one of the premier college basketball destinations in the country.
This, Husky hoop fans, is the season you've been waiting for.
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