Let the Madness Begin

SEATTLE - What an epic weekend to be a Husky basketball fan. Isaiah Thomas' fearless game-winning fadeaway jumpshot capped a stirring return to form for the beleaguered Dawgs, putting a positive punctuation point to their bi-polar campaign. UW also learned its NCAA Tournament fate Sunday afternoon, drawing the tenth-seeded Georgia Bulldogs in an opening-round matchup in host city Charlotte, NC.

With a potential marquee match-up against North Carolina Sunday in the second round, the Huskies have their work cut out from them. If there ever was a time to call these guys ‘Road Warriors', it's right now.

Washington's second Pac-10 Tournament title in row showed off the resiliency of Head Coach Lorenzo Romar's program. The Huskies have been all over the map this season, and they've endured just about everything the college basketball world could throw at them; injury after injury, legal struggles, a constantly fluctuating starting lineup, and players running hot and cold on the floor. They've dealt with it all, and though their regular season hardly went as planned, they ended conference play on the highest of highs.

The crazy thing is, Washington is hands down one of the most dangerous teams in the NCAA Tournament. As painfully inconsistent as they've been all season long, their best basketball of the season may still be ahead of them.

Much of that has to do with the unquenchable competitive fire of Isaiah Thomas. Like many of his teammates, Thomas struggled during the second half of Pac-10 play. His mid-season swoon wouldn't have been the first time a Husky star surrendered to the relentless pressure of the Pac-10 grind. Just two years, then-senior Justin Dentmon struggled similarly down the stretch, later disappearing altogether in the post-season.

Fortunately for Washington, Thomas is having none of that, and his late-game heroics of the Pac-10 Tournament will be fondly remembered in Husky basketball lore for decades to come. The buzzer-beater aside, Thomas' team leadership came into focus over the weekend as he rallied his team's resurgence. He had to, as he ended up playing 123 our of a possible 125 minutes during the tournament, a result of not having Venoy Overton available for the games.

Thomas' gutsiness and sensational passing were also critical in the overnight maturation of two UW teammates in particular - freshmen C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross. They grew up right in front of our eyes this weekend.

The silver lining in Overton's suspension was that it forced Washington's less experienced role players to step out of the shadows and tackle larger, less familiar offensive roles. They responded like seasoned pros. Thoughout the season, I've reiterated the importance of developing the Huskies trio of talented – but greeen – wings, going so far as to suggest that they were the key to the Huskies' season. Washington's core upperclassmen – Thomas, Overton, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday, were a fine nucleus to build a team around, but it was their young players that led to so much pre-season optimism. However, as is often the case with untested players, it was a bumpy road fraught with injury, inconsistent play, and fluctuating roles.

Wilcox and Ross took their respective games to new heights over the three-day tournament at the Staples Center. They sank five of the Huskies' final six field goals in the championship game before Thomas hit his fateful shot. Let that sink in: They made five shots down the stretch in a prime-time, marquee showdown in the west coast's most famous arena, in an edge-of-your-seat, overtime, nationally-televised championship game.

It was the freshmen who delivered dagger after dagger to set up Thomas' epic game-winner. For both Wilcox and Ross, they went from sideline, to starters, to stars in a manner of weeks.

But it wasn't just Ross and Wilcox that stepped up when the team needed them most. One of the Huskies' biggest revelations during the Pac-10 Tourney was the play of forward Darnell Gant. While Isaiah Thomas was the obvious Most Outstanding Player (for the second year in a row), and Ross and Wilcox the breakout stars, it was Gant who quietly became the Huskies' unsung hero.

Often times this season, Gant has been the odd man out. The athletic defensive standout appeared to struggle at times defining his role with the team, but it's become clear now. His game is all about hustle, shot blocking, the occasional jumpshot and rebounding. He made his biggest impact on the glass. Gant averaged seven rebounds in 20 minutes per game during the three-game tournament. Those are big rebounding numbers from a player who had collected more than seven boards just once in his Washington career. His 10 rebounds Friday evening stand as his career high.

Yet, as impressively as they played most of the Pac-10 Tournament, the team still isn't totally in sync, and it's been two of Washington's most consistent senior contributors who have struggled most down the home stretch.

Justin Holiday's outside shooting touch has inexplicably abandoned him. He's still the same fireman, menacing on defense while crashing the glass for big boards at key times, but the Huskies have missed his ability to create off the dribble and score from 10-15 feet. Same goes for Bryan-Amaning, who's become somewhat gun shy as his touch under the basket went further south than Tijuana. He has become a magnet for double teams in recent weeks, which may somewhat explain his recent struggles, but he's still better than what he's shown of late. Make no mistake; Washington is undoubtedly at their best when both players are performing at the top of their games, and they'll need both to show up on both ends of the floor during the NCAA Tournament for them to have any shot at getting to Houston.

Here's the crazy thing to think about: Imagine what this team would look like if everything clicked; Thomas leading the charge; MBA at his dominating best around the bucket; the wings bombing away from outside, while Holiday, Gant, VO and Aziz clean up the mess. It isn't hard to visualize, because we've seen it all at various points throughout the year. The team that created such buzz before the season is awfully close to realizing its full potential in the post-season.

Close, yes. But a given? Hardly.

Washington's first round opponent, The Georgia Bulldogs are lucky to be in the tournament at all. A 9-7 conference record, which includes a victory over then No. 11 Kentucky, helped them through backdoor. They're strong up front, where they generate the bulk of their offense, but aren't particularly well-equipped to slow down the Huskies, winning games by an average of 70-65.

All five starters play in excess of 30 minutes per game, led by versatile 6-foot-10, 245-pound forward Trey Thompkins, who averages 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Size-wise, the Bulldogs are pretty similar to USC, but fortunately for UW, that's about their only resemblance to the Trojans, who have been a match-up challenge for Washington. Georgia is regarded as a little on the soft side despite their size, and their guards aren't anything to write home about. They're fair shooters, don't take many threes, and Washington's guards are going to be a nightmare for the Bulldogs to contain.

Should the Huskies make it to the second round, they're in for the battle of their lives against North Carolina. Not only are the Tar Heels as hot as any team in the country right now, they're also playing at home, or close to it. They've won their last nine of 10 behind the consistent play of Tyler Zeller, Drew Henson and fab freshman Harrison Barnes who rattled off 40 against Clemson Saturday in the ACC Tournament.

Despite getting run off the court by Duke in the Tournament final, the Tar Heels' tall, skilled front court would be a challenge for Washington, though that could play into the Huskies' favor since 7-footer N'Daiye plays better against taller front lines. Like Washington, Carolina thrives in transition. They're explosive, and one of the few teams in the country that can match the Huskies' athleticism. They don't shoot it very well from outside, and have struggled mightily against the zone this season - a strategy Washington has employed effectively, especially late.

UNC is strong defensively, especially inside, led by the ACC Defensive Player of the Year Henson, and cause problems due to their length. They are also extremely young, starting freshman Barnes and Kendall Marshall, sophomores Zeller and guard Dexter Strickland, as well as Henson.

The location of the game is a huge equalizer against any physical or experience advantage the Huskies might possess. The UNC fan base is rabid, and they travel well. Expect to see a sea of baby blue blanketing Charlotte for the next week. If the Huskies make it to the second round, expect a track meet, similar to the games Washington has played against Arizona this year.

Should the Huskies survive the opening weekend, potential showdowns await against No. 3-seed Syracuse and their dreaded zone, a rematch against No. 4-seed Kentucky and Terrence Jones, and the tournament overall No. 1-seed Ohio State.

It's been a big week for Washington. Their solid, gutty Pac-10 Tournament play reminded all of us why the Huskies were the heavy conference favorite to start the season. And this is the NCAA Tournament, where anything can, and will happen. The Huskies are back to 0-0 with a fresh start and well-equipped for a deep post-season run, if they play the way they did this past weekend.

Husky fans, the Madness, is about to begin.

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