Beach's Bits

You know that tired old cliche: We're just taking it one game at a time. If I had a nickel for every time I heard it during a post game interview I'd be a rich man (speaking of tired old cliche's). But it perfectly sums up the remainder of the season for the Washington men's basketball team.

The Huskies are in charge of their own destiny for a change, and that's got to be a comforting, if not foreign feeling, for a team more accustomed to playing with its back against the wall.

For whatever reason, Washington is one of those programs that takes a while to come together. The Huskies' incredible success during the Lorenzo Romar era rarely takes root overnight. Most years, it takes the better part of the season before UW gets the feel behind the wheel and steps on the gas.

It's a little bit like building a campfire when the wood is damp. You light the newspaper and arraign the kindling just-so, but try as you might, it just doesn't catch. That is, until the wood dries ever so slightly and wind dies down just enough for the flame to take hold. Next thing you know you've got a roaring fire.

That's the way it is with Washington, except this time around their fire is already blazing while the rest of the conference are still trying to get their matches lit.

Washington in first place in the Pac-12 with just seven games remaining in conference play. A season once on the brink has suddenly turned considerably brighter. After starting out the season 6-5, the Huskies have won 11 of their last 13 games, including five straight. After sweeping the Arizona schools on the road and earning a thrilling come from behind victory against the UCLA Bruins, Washington has cemented its status as the team to beat in the Pac-12.

But this cement is not the quick-dry variety, which is why the Huskies need to take the rest of the season one game at a time. That's the only way they can ensure that what they built up to this point is something that has staying power.

It was at about this point last year where their season nearly unraveled. After losing a clunker in Pullman to Washington State on January 30th, the Huskies took about 10 giant steps backwards on the road against the Oregon schools. They were absolutely flattened.

The Hoop Dawgs venture south this week, hoping to avoid a repeat as they prepare to face an improving 7-4 Oregon Ducks squad Thursday night in Eugene. It should be noted that this time around, neither the Ducks nor the Beavers are the cupcakes Washington fans expected 12 months ago.

But Washington is an entirely different team as well. At this point last season, the Huskies were a veteran roster that had underachieved. They didn't really catch fire until the Pac-10 Tournament, which they ended up winning. This year has been an entirely different story, even if the early chapters had a similar feel to them.

Washington's young roster, which includes eight freshmen, is starting to find its legs. They are still a work-in-progress, but they seem to bring a new revelation nearly every week. Early on it was the scintillating play of Tony Wroten, Jr. that carried the team. He's maturing in every way imaginable. His 13-point, six-rebound performance against the USC Trojans in a 28-point home win Saturday night was solid, but it was his eight assists versus just one turnover that truly demonstrated how far he's come.

The shotmaking abilities of Terrence Ross have given the Huskies a huge lift as well. Ross has turned his late game heroics into an art form, lulling his opponents into complacency during the early part of the game before unleashing a torrent of T-buckets in the second half. bnv

While Aziz N'Daiye continues his steady maturation, Darnell Gant has come alive. The senior tri-captain has scored in double digits in four of the last seven games and his minutes have grown accordingly. In one of the season's biggest surprises, Shawn Kemp, Jr. is suddenly raising eyebrows. His two baskets in the first half against UCLA might not have seemed like much, but they were executed with authority. His scoring against USC was even more inspired as he confidently flushed several impressive dunks. Perhaps the most impressive of which occurred off a low Wroten feed that required him to gather the ball around his shins while somehow summoning the energy to power up for a monster two-handed jam. That's not an easy play to make, yet he made it look routine.

We can't forget the contributions of Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who could argue on his own behalf that he gave the Huskies exactly what they needed at the time he moved from the gridiron to the hardwood - guts. The 6-foot-6, 258-pound frosh tight end took his considerable athleticism and immediately put it to work on the basketball court during his first action against Stanford - coming up with one of the great score lines in UW history: 16 minutes, no points, seven rebounds, one assist, one steal, and five fouls.

ASJ gave the Huskies belief that they could battle against anyone and persevere. He instilled that external fight that didn't seem to be there before. He brought a hunger and energy that also appeared to be lacking. Kemp must have been thinking to himself that if ASJ could go in and play meaningful minutes and contribute, he could to. And he has.

The Huskies remain far from a finished product (Cliche No. 3), but that's one of the most exciting facets of this team. Every week brings a new breakthrough. They aren't dominating anyone. Their margin of victory is just plus-4.7 points– a far cry from Colorado's 8.7 point spread - yet with the Pac-12's best record, Washington is learning how to win close games. It is a vital lesson to learn for any young team.

They're winning because they're fighters and they possess the will to win. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a player like Ross to close out games.

UW still has a ways to go. They're still turning the ball over too much and their defense can be downright ugly at times. The same can be said for their inconsistent offensive execution, especially when their outside jumpers aren't falling. And than there's those pesky free throws.

Despite the evident flaws, they are still winning. The conference may be down, but it still says a lot about these guys.

In reality - as impressive as their record is - there's still a whole lot more in the tank. Wroten is just scratching the surface (Cliche No. 4), and he could be an All American if he decides to stick around for another season. The same could be said for Ross once he learns to summon his extraordinary skills for more than one half at a time.

To a lesser extent - that's the story with the entire roster; as good as the Huskies are now, they can be so much more. They're a young team and they're still learning, but after weathering a frustrating start to the season, their maturation has becoming an entertaining storyline as they enter the final month of the regular season.

Fans should get used to hearing Romar talk about taking the rest of the season one game at a time, because that's precisely what he should be saying. And he won't need any prompting. He's been here too many times before.

Coming off the emotional high of beating Arizona and UCLA, the Hoop Dawgs could have easily taken their foot off the throttle and overlooked the USC. But they didn't.

This team has it where it counts, Husky fans. They're big, athletic, physical and bristling with weapons. They play with a lot of pride. But most of all, these young pups have a lot of heart.


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