Huskies are wary of wounded warriors

SEATTLE - From the outside looking in, it's hard not to cast a sympathetic nod in USC's direction. During a four-game pre-season trip to Brazil, the Trojans' basketball team looked pretty solid. The starting lineup consisted of Jio Fontan, Maurice Jones, juco transfer Dewayne Dedmon, Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller, and redshirt sophomore forward Evan Smith.

Those five players were going to be the ones that would help Trojan fans forget about the loss of Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson, Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons from the year before.

How times have changed.

Nine different lineups later, USC (6-23, 1-15) is now just counting the days before their season is complete. Meanwhile, Washington (20-8, 13-3) is heading in just the opposite direction. They are two Pac-12 wins away from the best conference record under Lorenzo Romar, as well as their second-ever outright league title since the Pacific-8 Conference was formed in 1969.

The two teams tangle in Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night at the Galen Center. The game is not on television, but can be seen via the internet at http://www.gohuskies.com/allaccess/?media=305241. For those UW fans in Seattle, you can also listen to KJR 950 AM and 102.9 FM for the radio broadcast.

Heading into the season, Lorenzo Romar must have thought this last road trip through southern California would have been a very tough way to end the Huskies' regular season. On Tuesday he still reiterated those thoughts, but the context happens to be much, much different than even he could have anticipated.

It started with Fontan, who tore knee ligaments during that Brazil trip, and sophomore forward Curtis Washington who had a shoulder injury in August. Both took place in August. Smith came back for one game in December after resting an injured shoulder, but was subsequently shut down for the season. Fuller was also done for the year after he tore his left labrum at the end of January. Sadly, Dedmon suffered a torn MCL the same day as Fuller's injury, also ending his season prematurely.

Add in the transfer of sophomore guard Bryce Jones and the ineligibility of two more incoming transfers - Ari Stewart from Wake Forest and Eric Wise from UC-Irvine - and the Trojans suddenly had barely more scholarshipped players available (six) than not (five).

Now USC relies on Jones, freshman guards Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley, sophomore forward Garrett Jackson, and first-year junior college transfer James Blasczyk at center. The lone bench player on scholarship is guard Greg Allen, another junior college transfer who is in his first year as a Trojan. Jones has played over 1000 minutes this year and he's responsible for more than a quarter of USC's offensive output.

"You say, well how can you be impressed with someone that's only won one conference game?" Romar queried Tuesday. "Well, you look at them defensively - they are still hard to score on. They are still in the game until the end. That's a heck of a job. I don't know what I would do in that situation. I don't think I could do as good a job as Kevin O'Neill has done."

Respect for the Trojans' resiliency shouldn't be taken as just lip service from Washington. They are taking USC as seriously as any game they've played this year - mostly because it's the next one on the schedule.

"It doesn't matter," senior forward Darnell Gant said when asked about USC's record. "You can't look at them like that. You do that, and you slip up. Last year we came in with a chip on our shoulder. We knew that if we didn't win, we weren't going to get in the tournament. And it's really the same thing right now. If we lose one, we might not be able to go to the NCAA Tournament unless we win the Pac-12. If we slip up, we might not go."

Still, it's hard to take seriously a team that's only won one game out of their last 17.

Romar is taking the scoreboard out of the equation. "My biggest hope is that we go down there and play really good basketball," he said. "I don't care if the score is tied and they drop-kick it in our basket by accident and we win; I don't care what the score is. Are we going to play good basketball? That's what I want to see. If we do that, regardless of what the outcome is, I'll be pretty excited as we head into tournament play."

And the Huskies should be excited, as well as motivated, for a couple of reasons. First - and most importantly - they are playing their best basketball at this point in the season despite the fact that they haven't really gelled together offensively outside of their win at Arizona. Secondly, they are at the top of the Pac-12 Conference and are in control of their own destiny as they chase down an outright league crown.

"You catch a break," Romar said when asked about the 13-point California loss at Colorado that gave the Huskies their slim half-game lead. "That wasn't what we were looking for, but we were able to catch a break. Now we have to take advantage of it now.

"I've been asked before - what do you value more? The Pac-12 Championship, or league championship? In my opinion, the league championship, because you're talking about 18 games versus three or four games. You're talking about playing a second round of games where people have a chance to prepare more for you because the first time you got ‘em. This time? They are going to make some adjustments. To come out on top after 18 games I think is something that is pretty special. If you can manage that, it says a lot."

USC's struggles have been exaggerated to the breaking point, but it's not as if Washington hasn't had some issues of their own to deal with. They came into the season loaded with talent, but without clear leaders or scorers. No one returned with a scoring average in double-digits; senior guard Scott Suggs decided to redshirt after a foot/ankle injury sidelined him early on; sophomore sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox missed a key three-game stretch where the Huskies lost a three-point heartbreaker to Cal; right now center Aziz N'diaye is playing through immense pain with his left wrist, an injury he can't exacerbate but also won't heal until after the season is complete.

The Trojans would take Washington's woes in a heartbeat, as well as their win-loss record. Since they can't, they've been relegated to the role of spoiler - something that scares Romar and the Huskies. Gant said the team has been getting a steady barrage of messages from the coaches ever since their attention was turned to Troy.

"They've been putting it up on the walls, and our trainers have been sending us mass texts, telling us to beat SC," Gant said. "The point that they are trying to get across is that we have to get through SC first. We can't take them lightly because they've only won one (league) game. We have to look past that and look at them like they are the No. 2 team, and they are trying to knock us off.

"Every game, it gets harder. Nobody is just going to let you have it. You're not going to walk over anybody to get it. Every game is the championship game."

The thought that conforts Romar a little bit is the fact that this team is finding ways to win, even on the road. They are 5-2 in Pac-12 play away from Alaska Airlines Arena, their best road mark ever to date. The No. 1-seed team of 2005 had four league losses, and the last three NCAA Tournament teams averaged over four road losses per season.

When the season is complete and the analyses come tumbling through the inter webs, 2012 may be seen as Romar's best coaching job ever at UW. "My wife could tell you that I've never doubted this team, even in the midst of…been frustrated, disappointed at times, but never doubted what we were capable of doing," he said. "That's why we continue to work and continue to look past what at happened, but yet try to learn from what it happened to ensure that it didn't happen again. I knew we just had some growing up to do. I was hopeful that when it was all said and done that we would be in a position like this."

It's not often Romar speaks out of turn, especially when asked a question that requires him to project out a little bit, but he did not hesitate Tuesday when the question of Washington's NCAA worthiness was thrown out there.

"No doubt about it," he said, matter-of-factly. "I think we are good enough defensively to compete in the NCAA Tournament. If and when we begin to get everyone healthy and hit on all cylinders offensively, I think we can be dangerous offensively. You put those two together, you have a chance to be competitive with anyone. I felt we were very competitive with some really quality, quality teams. And I think we're a better team now than we were back then."

That 'better team' will face a seriously battered one Thursday night, and it's easy to dig out the old cliches about wounded animals being the most dangerous. But these Trojans are toothless, punchless and without motivation of any kind to continue showing up just to get beat down.

Yet the Huskies have to deal with the biggest sports cliche of them all in less than 24 hours: That's why they play the game. You never know which teams will show up until the ball is tipped. In 2005, Washington was rolling; in their penultimate regular-season game, they obliterated California 106-73 in Berkeley, making 16 three-pointers along the way. All that was left for a share of the Pac-10 title was a win at Stanford.

But UW went ice cold and lost that game by 10. Granted, the Huskies were playing their best basketball of the year by that time, so they were able to go on and punch their Big Dance ticket by beating Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament Championship game.

The same thing could happen starting Thursday. They could roll over USC, but then trip up in their season finale against UCLA. That's entirely possible.

"This team has had to overcome some obstacles that I don't know a lot of people really realize, and I've got to give them a lot of credit," Romar said. "But that's up to this point; we could blow it this weekend."

That may have been the case a couple of months ago, but it appears as if this Washington team has grown up just in time to avoid the kind of setback that would have been a death knell to their post-season possibilities earlier in the year.

"We've been talking to our team about control what we can control, and we weren't looking at it any other way," Romar said. "We weren't counting on anyone for any help. We were just approaching it as we were the ones that could control our destiny."


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