Huskies thriving, surviving - and advancing

SEATTLE - I noticed that on March 3rd, the first 2000 USC fans that show up for their season-ending game versus WSU will receive a Maurice Jones Bobblehead. For not much more, they could probably give out a life-sized version of the real thing. I kid, of course, but when USC has to pin all its hopes on a 5-foot-7 sophomore guard, life isn't going to plan in Kevin O'Neill's universe.

On Planet Romar, things are going swimmingly. The Washington Head Coach and his Huskies currently lead the Pac-12 Conference race at 9-2 and they just beat USC Saturday night by 28, holding the Trojans to 41 points, the lowest number since UW held Oregon State to 40 points in 1996. USC had only six scholarship players available to them, and it showed.

Speaking of showing things, Washington is slowly but surely becoming a team. Roles are not only being defined and refined, but also embraced. The freshmen are finding their legs and gaining confidence with every minute they step out onto the floor. The veteran players are leading by voice and by example, and the front court is finally starting to match the ferocious offensive pace set by the guards. And most importantly, the players have wedded themselves to the kind of energy, enthusiasm and discipline it takes to play top-notch defense.

They aren't there yet by any stretch. They forced USC into a lot of bad shots, but it's not often you run into a team that goes 1-16 from the arc (the Huskies were not so nice themselves from deep, only going 2-14). But give this group of Huskies the credit they deserve; after coming from behind and winning a nail-biter against UCLA Thursday - a real emotional tug of war - a lot of Romar's teams in the past would have made the next game against an easier opponent a lot tighter than it needed to be. There would be a let down of sorts, a lack of drive, a dash of laziness added to the mix - and what looked to be a gimme game now turned into Struggle City.

"We made it through," Romar said after UW's win Saturday night.  "After the UCLA game we weren't sure who would be ready to play, who would be available for us.  This was a really good game for us.  We haven't had one of these in a long time where we were able to go out and really, really compete but yet give some other guys an opportunity to get out there on the floor.  Overall, I thought, with the exception of too many turnovers, we handled ourselves pretty good tonight."

Romar had faith that this younger group would gel. It might take a little longer that what fans would like or expect, but it would come. Well, it appears as if Carnac has struck once again. The Huskies didn't initially run away from USC because the shots weren't falling. But they kept at it. They forced some bad shots, and the Trojans couldn't capitalize on the ones they did get. And over time UW was able to stretch things out into a 10-point halftime lead.

And then it came; the 40-22 second half - the opening 9-4 run and the crushing 18-0 run to make it 62-33 with 3:37 left in the game. The Trojans' Greg Allen made their only three of the game with 80 seconds to go.

The second-half run was impressive enough; there were other numbers that were downright staggering. Washington out-scored USC bench 29-0. That's just ridiculous. The Huskies out-muscled, out-fought and out-toughed the Trojans right out of town. I can't remember the last time a Pac-12 team came in so decimated and so unable to match up athletically, physically, or by any other metric you choose to use.

That being said, this Washington team took care of business Saturday night in a year where that hasn't always been the case. And my hypothesis for that is not just based on the fact that they played arguably the worst high-major program in America. It's also based on the fact that this team is clearly hungry for more.

Just look at the stat line; after getting the living crap kicked out of him Thursday, freshman guard Tony Wroten came back like a warrior and led his team in scoring. Not only that, he finished his 29 minutes with an 8-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

After getting out-boarded by UCLA, Lorenzo Romar asked more of his team from a physical standpoint. He wanted them to be more aggressive and more dedicated toward getting every rebound possible. The result? Fifty-two rebounds for the Huskies, 29 more than USC. UW's Terrence Ross had more rebounds (14) than points (10), tying a career-high. I can't remember a time when a conference game was so lopsided on the glass.

This win was a true collective effort; UW had nine players score four points or more, including a lot of younger players - guys like Martin Breunig, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Shawn Kemp, Jr. It's these players that can help with minutes here and there during stretches when the first five need a quick breather. Kemp's 13 minutes helped allowed Aziz N'diaye to play a reasonable 22 minutes, scoring nine points and bringing down five rebounds. Eight Huskies played 13 minutes or more Saturday night, which is a lot more Romar-like that what we've been used to seeing for a lot of this year - and that can only add to their appetite for more.

No one doubts that the Huskies' best ball is ahead of them; now it's just a matter of finding out how well they can take their current form back out onto the road. The Oregon road swing has always been a tough one for Romar; his teams have only been able to sweep the Oregon schools as visitors three times since becoming Washington's head coach in 2003.

"It's been a work in progress for a while.  When I looked at the big picture with our schedule, and I saw that we were home-game heavy earlier in the schedule, I thought, with our team, that's exactly what we needed because I thought we might be able to trick a couple of teams until we started to get better.  If this would have been reversed, if we would have had five out of seven on the road early, our record would be far different because we weren't ready for that.  But now I think we're a little more prepared to handle what we're about to face.  I'm not making any predictions; I just think we're a little more prepared to handle it."

With seven games left - and five of those on the road - Washington's road to the conference title already has a playoff vibe about it. The Huskies can't afford to make many mistakes from here on out, and if they show the same hunger and determination that got them a coveted home sweep over the LA schools down south, they'll be just five steps closer to that coveted conference mantle.

As Henry IV once said, uneasy is the head that wears a crown, and right now the Huskies are the ones trying to keep their heads about them. The road sweep of the Arizona schools plays huge here. If they can muster the same type of response and don't get caught up when things start to slide - as they inevitably will from time to time when you don't have your fans to bring you back - Washington will continue to climb the charts, perhaps even catch a glimpse of a national top-25 poll somewhere.

This is the time where championship teams show they are capable to withstanding the pressure when rivals are gunning for them every step of the way, and that goes double when you go away from the friendly confines. On Friday Lorenzo Romar noted that he would have taken 8-2 going into Saturday's game in a heartbeat. I'm guessing 9-2 works even better for him. What price would he pay for wins at Oregon and Oregon State next week?

"I've been saying that I think, and I don't know if people really believe me, we turned the corner at Utah in that three or four point victory, that people have been very critical of," Romar said.  "I think we turned the corner there because we were a different offensive team.  We still only scored in the fifties but we shared the ball better.  We handled the road better.  That's when I first saw that we had made progress on the road.  Before that we had been very, very poor on the road.  But that's when it started.  Let's hope that progress continues to be made."


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