Washington basketball on the cusp

Who knows if Lorenzo Romar is one to look at basketball polls, and I'm sure he wouldn't be surprised to see his Washington team not listed in the top-25 of the pre-season USA Today coaches' poll. After all, how do you replace a group of players like Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Tre Simmons and Hakeem Rollins? That's the biggest question on everybody's mind as the hoop dawgs take their first steps into the 2005-2006 season Sunday in an exhibition game against Simon Fraser at BOA Arena.

"I think people respect our program, but they don't see us as a perennial national power," Romar said Tuesday. "They probably view us as a team that was cute to watch, they exceeded everyone's expectations. No one gave them a chance but they continued to do well. They were fun to watch. We are not a program that has had a lot of success for 5-10-15 years running. We've had two years of success, so we're on people's radar. But I don't think people look at us as a perennial power, so it is where it is. And I have no problem with that."

He's expecting the 2005 Huskies to be just as fun to watch, just in different ways. "I think they are going to be good. We've got to go out and prove ourselves every year. We've got to prove to ourselves that we are worthy of getting back to the NCAA tournament and being successful this year. That's something we have to work out within our own program."

The hardest part for Romar and his staff will be finding the same kind of continuity and intuition that allowed last year's team to play the game without thinking too much. "You miss the ability of Tre Simmons to score in bunches," said Romar. "You miss the warrior mentality, leadership and no quit that Will Conroy brought. Hakeem Rollins, you miss that ever-present attitude of doing whatever the team wanted him to do. And with Nate...the dunks and spectacular plays were fun and a lot of people hadn't seen that before. But what excited me more was how he walked out on that floor and he had no idea that he was 5-foot-8. He believed that he was going to win - win as an individual and win as a team, and that can't help but rub off on the team. You miss that.

"That team didn't have to think, they just played. It was a veteran club. This team right now is doing a lot of thinking."

And that 'thinking' is manifesting itself in the form of missed communications on defense, turnovers and missed opportunities on offense. But don't worry, it hasn't cost them a game yet. And while the team has obviously turned to more of a youth movement, Romar said that this new crop of freshmen have something that he hasn't seen before.

"This freshman group is the most cooperative, coachable group I've ever coached, in terms of freshman coming in," said Romar. "It puts the pressure on us coaches, because whatever you ask them to do, they are going to do it. They ask questions. Some ask questions to show you up or to get out of a bind - these guys ask questions because they want to get better. We love that about them."

"But when you are trying to blend in six new faces, it doesn't happen overnight. But that's what we're trying to do."

And it's not just new faces on the court. There's a new face on the bench too. Former Washington hoopster Paul Fortier joined Romar's staff this past summer after assistant coach Ken Bone left Montlake to become the head coach at Portland State. "Like losing great guards, in place of not having those guys our front line is much better," Romar said. "Doesn't mean it's better or worse, it's just a different dynamic. Ken Bone's experience as a head coach and experience in the northwest, it's like our guards - you can't replace that. That's pretty good. But in a different way, Coach Fortier has played here, loves this university, has played the pivot position and has learned some things from other places that he brings to the table."

So with all these new pieces to the puzzle, it's no wonder Washington was in the 'Others receiving votes' category of the USA Today coaches poll. One thing the Huskies have going for them is a schedule that bears absolutely no resemblance to the non-conference gauntlet they ran through last year. Gone are Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama and North Carolina State. Teams like Idaho, Lehigh, Cornell and New Mexico are there instead.

"It would have been really rough having that schedule this year," said Romar of last year's docket. "I don't think we would be ready to attack that kind of schedule. Last year I knew we would be very competitive with it. If we had that schedule at the end of the year, I think we would be able to attack it."

The other added bonus is that the game with the Lobos is the only true non-conference 'road' game - although that game will be played as part of the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif. "We've won 22 straight home games, and our crowd has done a fantastic job of inspiring us and supporting us," Romar said. "And playing at home, we feel like we can be competitive with anyone, and we really like that with this young group."

Since Mike Jensen is expected to be out until the beginning of the Pac-10 season with a repaired shoulder, that just opens up more playing time for the likes of true frosh Jon Brockman and Artem Wallace. Romar hinted that he could go as deep as 10 players if he wanted to, so if you exclude Jensen and Zach Johnson - recovering from knee surgery - and also little-used junior Hans Gasser, that means that all five of Romar's 2005 recruiting class would play.

Now the question is, who is going to start? "I'm still settling in on a rotation," Romar said, adding that he's still sold on Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones occupying two of those starting spots. "All summer you wonder what this team could be like and envision certain guys stepping up and you have some questions about how long it might take the freshmen to step up and I would say everything we thought about during the summer are pretty close to what we've seen."

In the college game, the point guard reigns supreme. "This is getting to be like the quarterback position in the pre-season," Romar said when asked who might have the upper hand leading his team. Conventional wisdom has Ryan Appleby - a transfer from Florida - and true freshman Justin Dentmon from Illinois duking it out, but Brandon Roy might get his touches too. "Who was our point guard last year? Whichever one you say, I'm going to ask you, 'Are you sure?' I don't know if we have a point guard. We have guards that go out and play."

The thought of Roy - unquestionably one of Washington's go-to guys in 2005 - bringing the ball upcourt - fits Romar's belief when it comes to having versatility and athletes at every position. "The ball will be in his hands a lot more," said Romar of Roy, a pre-season candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year honors after earning honorable mention the past two years. "You can't play the game and not have the ball in Nate Robinson's hands. Will Conroy became the top assist man in U-Dub history, you have to get him the ball at times. Tre Simmons is a pretty good scorer, somehow he's got to touch the ball. We don't have that as much now, so a lot of it is going to fall on Brandon. The ball is going to be in his hands. And it doesn't mean he's going to score 40 points a game, it just means he's going to be more of a playmaker."

Bobby Jones continues to elevate his game. The 6-foot-7 senior from Compton, Calif. was part of the United States' World University Games team that won a gold medal in Turkey this past August. "I know it was great winning and I know he enjoyed winning that gold medal," Romar said of Jones' play in the games. "I know he wanted to be more of a contributor, but that can be a wake-up call to show that you've got to always be working.

"He's purpetual motion and he's just relentless. He's constantly trying to gain an edge. And he's not really distracted out there."

Add former New Mexico transfer Jamaal Williams, returning sophomore Joel Smith and Jensen, and that's the Huskies' core group of returning scorers. Add in some offensive punch from Appleby and Dentmon, defensive bulk and rebounding from Brockman and Wallace, an all-around game from Harvey Perry and a tall, rangy 7-footer in Joe Wolfinger, and you just might have the makings of another Washington team that's 'fun to watch'.

But Romar isn't going to be satisfied with just pretty. "I would like to see us get to the post-season," he said.
Wallace surprises: When asked if there was one freshman that has surprised the staff with some game they didn't expect, Romar immedately spoke of Artem Wallace. "We knew that Artem Wallace was athletic, we just didn't know how athletic he could be," he said of the 6-foot-9 forward from St. Petersburg, Russia - by way of Toledo, Wash. "He can run, he can jump, he can move his feet. We thought it was going to be difficult for him on the defensive end his first year. That's what we thought. He is not a lock-down guy right now, but he's further along defensively than where we thought he was going to be."

Teen Wolf: Joe Wolfinger - who turned 20 on October 8th - is still growing into his 7-foot frame. "His lack of strength - that's his only issue right now," Romar said of Wolfinger, who is originally from Beaverton, Ore., but played prep school basketball last year at the Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass. "We ask our players to be all over the floor, and because of that he's already become more agile. He will continue to gain more agility. Those are the only things that are holding him back from being a very good basketball player. I think he's our hardest worker right now. When the whistle blows, we've got a lot of hard workers. When the whistle blows again at the end, he picks up a ball and works on stuff himself."

Easy does it with Perry: Newcomer Perry has been hit and miss lately with some back issues, namely a bulging disc. "I think he's had worse days than others," Romar said when asked about Perry's condition. "And we're always aware of early injuries. You're always been pushed in ways that you haven't all summer or all spring, so that happens from time to time. But we're not really concerned."

Tickets still available: Even though demand has been high, there are still roughly 700 season tickets stilll available for purchase. Game tickets for the BCA (Black Coaches Association) Classic Nov. 13-15 are still plentiful, as they are not part of the original season-ticket package. For ticket inquiries, call the Husky Ticket Office at (206) 543-2200.

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