Proud to be students at Washington, the 12 and 13-year-olds called themselves "Junior Huskies." The presence of the kids added an element to practice. They clearly looked up to the players on the Husky team and many even knew quite a bit about them.
"That's Will Conroy!" a youngster named Percy yelled, just as the freshman point guard entered the gym. "He's from Garfield."
Another exclaimed, "Hey, there's Doug Wrenn! He went to O'Dea."
Early in practice Erroll Knight got loose on a two-on-one drill and executed a powerful alleyoop dunk. The kids erupted with cheers, something that doesn't happen at a typical practice. It was easy to tell that the players got a kick out of the attention. Before the cheers could quiet down, one kid said, "He went to Chief Sealth," referring to Knight's high school.
These youngsters were sharp.
They had a lot to cheer about. Curtis Allen returned to practice today after missing a few days with a sprained ankle. He spent a lot of time working on his perimeter game, and wearing the number 20 is looking more and more like Gary Payton every day from a physical standpoint.
Like all practices, the team spent quite a bit of time at the free throw line. That's an area that killed the Huskies last season, and they hope that this year's squad will yield better results. Gone are the poor charity stripe shooters in Bryan Brown, Michael Johnson, Will Perkins, and Greg Clark. In their place is a group of guys that at least early on - in non-game situations - look to be better at the line. Mike Jensen has a pure shot with perfect rotation, and will be an improvement over Perkins and Clark. Conroy has a weird shooting style, but seems to put the ball in the hole on a consistent basis. Wrenn and Knight both could easily shoot 70 percent for the season. Of all the newcomers, it's Josh Barnard that's been struggling a bit at the line, a three-point shooter who would figure to be dead-eye from the charity stripe.
Bender and his staff look to be putting an early emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. The team is going to look to run, and a big part of that will have to come from the defense forcing turnovers. The coaching staff is making sure that the newly-found athleticism on the team won't be wasted. Ball handlers will be pressured, and with guys like Knight, Wrenn, Allen, Conroy, and CJ Massingale, it'll be fun to watch.
The Huskies will be undersized all year with the loss of big men Marlon Shelton and Anthony Washington. Shelton reinjured his knee and will redshirt the season, and Washington failed to meet NCAA qualifying requirements and will likely enroll next season. That's going to ask a lot from two freshmen, Mike Jensen and Jeffrey Day, to step up and clean the glass on a daily basis.
They'll be asked to crash the boards and put a body on the opposing team's big-man all year long. Jensen gives up two inches to Day, but probably weights more. He's got more muscle and is tougher to move out of the paint. Day, thus far, has had problems keeping his footing when he's attempted to block players out for rebounds. Against someone like David Dixon, who he goes up against in practice, he simply cannot maintain a seal. He'll need to add more weight before really being able to bang in the paint for rebounds.
Bender has to be pleased with the way his players are coming along. In years past, the question was who to get the ball to. The Huskies couldn't score, and really had no go to players. This year they may face the same question, but for a very different reason. When they ask who should get the ball, they'll have plenty of answers. With Wrenn, Knight, Allen, and Massingale, they have four players right there capable of going for 20 points on any given night.
That will make the kids from Washington Intermediate School happy. They want their Husky team to improve from their 10-20 marks in each of the last two seasons.
"These guys look good," said one of the young onlookers.
As he glanced down to the Husky season schedule in his hand, he couldn't help but be excited.
"November 2nd is the first game (versus the Brisbane Capitals of Australia). I've gotta be there."
Men's Hoops Update: 10/25
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