Romar expects big test

When it comes to basketball, try and think of a good non-conference rivalry on the west coast. I dare you. There are certainly no Kentucky-Louisville clashes to talk about, not even solid regional tilts, like Cincinnati-Xavier. Could the Washington Huskies change all that? Well, they have a willing foe in the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Now they need to show that they are capable to ascending to the 'Dogs' level. They'll get that chance this Sunday, as the 'Dogs and Dawgs get together for another battle on the hardwood.

Back in the day, the Washington Huskies had a little bit of a rivalry going with Seattle University. For a stretch of 10 years, from 1970-80, the Huskies edged the Chieftains by the oh, so close margin of 18 games to four, the lone SU win at Hec Ed coming in 1979, Lorenzo Romar's first season with Washington.

"They were good and had some NBA players," Romar said Tuesday. "We thought was for bragging rights in the city. Wherever you went - the IMA or somewhere else - you'd see those players and it would be like, 'We got you.' That was fun."

Now the Huskies once again look for bragging rights, but this time it's state-wide. And they've had that same shot for the past seven seasons, as the last time Washington defeated the Spokane Jesuits was back in 1998, ironically the last time they made it to the Sweet Sixteen before last year. There's no question the Bulldogs have had the Huskies' number, and it really hasn't been close.

"As a competitor, it ticks me off when my wife beats me five straight times as Scrabble," Romar said at the recent lopsided nature of the series between the two schools. "You definitely want to win."

Well, board-game comparisons aside, there's a bit of irony in the Bulldogs' recent supremacy in this series. It doesn't accurately reflect the series history. If you take out the last seven years, Washington has absolutely owned Gonzaga, to the tune of 28-5. From 1983-1996, the two teams didn't play, and then the Huskies picked up where they left off, winning in 1996 and 1998.

Then the wheels fell off, along with the steering wheel, the airbag and the ashtray.

"We have to play at a high, high level. A lot of things have to go right for us to win the game," Romar said, perhaps understating the case. The Huskies will be facing a road-testing Gonzaga team that went out from the jump and just decided to take on the best teams in the country without even a short dip in the wading pool. By diving right into the deep end, they have already faced Maryland, Michigan State (in what might stand as the best game of the 2005-2006 season when it's all said and done), and those other Huskies from Connecticut.

"Gonzaga is going to have a high RPI, and when you're talking about the NCAA tournament and it's going down the stretch, it's these games that help your cause," said Romar. "This is also the first time we play an opponent that's just as talented or more talented than we are."

And they arguably have the top offensive player in the country in Adam Morrison. Morrison is currently second in the country, scoring at a 25 points-per-game clip. But J.P. Batista and Derek Raivio aren't that far behind, both going for other 20 per on their own. So Washington's job is pretty easy, right? Shut those three down and you're in.

Not so fast.

"They've always had a fifth guy that was always a chemistry guy," Romar said of Gonzaga's lineup. "(Pierre Altador-) Cespides was that guy last year a little bit. (Kyle) Bankhead was another one of those guys. But (Jeremy) Pargo isn't a chemistry guy - he's a guy that can make big plays. Him and Raivio - that's a lethal combination."

But really, the 'Zags begin and end with the junior from Mead High. Romar remembers when Morrison put up 37 in the Class 4A finals against Aaron Brooks and Franklin. "I thought that, after John Stockton, he'll be the next best player to ever put on a Gonzaga uniform," said Romar, comparing his offensive prowess to former Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony. "And he hasn't disappointed yet. He's as good an offensive player as there is in the country."

He was pretty darn good last year. So what has happened to allow Morrison to take his game up a notch or three? "He's more assertive," Romar said, matter-of-factly. "Morrison had Batista and Turiaf last year, and now Turiaf's gone and Morrison has stepped it up. People have to watch him to see just how well he runs the floor. There's no other way to slice it - he's really, really good.

"I don't think you can guard him with just one guy. As a team you have to know where Adam Morrison is. He's just a great player."

The 2004-2005 Huskies were probably better-equipped to handle Gonzaga, especially after winning the Great Alaska Shootout - beating Utah, Oklahoma and Alabama along the way. But they did what the UW team before them - and the team before them - and the team before them - and the team before them - did.

They lost.

And in Romar's second-season, his first hosting the Bulldogs at Hec Ed, the Huskies were 3-0 and primed to upset the then No 17. Zags. Instead they laid an egg. At one point during the 86-62 loss, Washington missed 22 shots in a row. But clearly there's a different feeling about these Dawgs.

"Since that time we've beaten a No. 1 team in the country (Stanford) here, we played in a Sweet Sixteen game, we were a No. 1 seed, we won a Pac-10 championship," said Romar. "I think we've got a different attitude than we've had in the past. I think we've had games that are just as big or bigger than this one and have done OK."

There's one other major difference too - a 28-home game winning streak. 'The Streak' will be put in serious jeopardy for the first time since February 26th, when then-No. 9 Arizona came to Seattle and lost 93-85. "They all understand that when you're a competitor, that's a competition," said Romar of the streak, currently the longest in the nation. "Of course it's going to be important. Our mindset is confident. In the past I think we may have shown false confidence."

If the Huskies do pull out a victory, it'll be done with new players and a team that's far from being what they are capable of. Granted, they are 6-0 and have blown out some serious D1 lightweights. But Romar talked about nothing but upside when it came time to defend the UW schedule-makers.

"There has been so many positives by playing at home and having games where it's worked out to give multiple young players quality minutes, it's worked out tremendously," Romar said. "Guys like Hans Gasser, Artem Wallace and Brandon Burmeister. Because of it, a guy like Brandon Burmeister can now go into a Pac-10 game and we're very confident that he can go in and do a good job.

"And it's probably not the best idea to play some of the elite teams when you are a work in progress. I've seen some teams never recover from that, they lose their confidence."

But just like Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few will lean on Morrison, Batista and Raivio, Romar will have his key guys ready to step up when the time requires it. Bobby Jones and Brandon Roy certainly fit that bill, but they are still finding their way as veterans through the sea of newbies that has enveloped Washington hoops. But what newbies!

"What Bobby Jones is doing, playing more on the perimeter for us, that's new," Romar said. "And he's done well making that adjustment. And Brandon Roy, he's handling the ball more and doing well at that adjustment. As a group we're a work in progress."

Probably the best example of that is frosh point guard Justin Dentmon. Dentmon was the man in Carbondale, Ill., but has learned to subjugate his role as scorer and has added other pieces to his repertoire in a short period of time. "He averaged 25 points per game and carried his team in high school," Romar said of Dentmon. "To be able to shift gears and lead our team in assists with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman with as many possessions as we've had in these games is outstanding. And he's done it on the defensive end too, he's drawn charges and picked the ball up high for us. I think he's done a really nice job.

"He picks up the ball early and does a good job of keeping guys in front of him. And if we can't apply ball pressure with our defense, our productivity goes down. He really helps, in that regard."

To put it in perspective, Washington scored roughly 62 points in transition against Loyola-Marymount and another 12-14 on the offensive glass. The ball is getting spread around, and Dentmon is one of the reasons why. But he's not doing it alone. He has a couple of 'chaperones' in Roy and Ryan Appleby.

"He hasn't had to come in with the ball in his hands and we're looking to him to make every move," said Romar. "It's taken the pressure off a bit."

And ultimately, if the Hoop Dawgs need a bucket down the stretch, don't be surprised if it goes to number 3. "We've seen it time and time again," Romar said of senior Roy and his ability to score in the clutch. "He's still averaging more points than any other player we've had since we've been here."

But in the end, it's going to take a full-team effort and probably contributions from at least eight Huskies to keep them on the Bulldogs' level. "We will have to play with maximum effort and focus every possession, for 40 minutes," added Romar. "We're going to try and approach the game the same way we did Idaho and Morgan State. When we practice, we're going to get after it, regardless of what it is. I'm not sure we see a whole lot of moodswings just based on what the game is."

So does that mean the Huskies - once the series is finished after next year's game in Spokane - will renew a yearly home-home slugfest with the perennial tournament team from the Inland Empire?

"We're going to look into it, we need to talk about it," Romar said. "We're leaning toward doing it, but we have to continue to do well."

Amen.
Notes:
Perry out for time being: Frosh guard Harvey Perry was diagnosed with a small stress fracture in his lower back. He was required to take four weeks of rest time with no activity and he'll be finished with that right after the Huskies go to Anaheim, Calif. to meet New Mexico in the Wooden Classic. After that time he'll be required to take up to eight weeks to rehab his back. "It may not take that long, but it could," Romar said. "During that process, we will decide what will happen from there. He (Perry) is very optimistic, but we're not sure what's going to happen."

Jensen almost set to be cleared: "He's doing very well," Romar said of Jensen, a senior forward from Kent. "We'll find out tomorrow what the doctors say. He was given 12 weeks before he would be cleared to play with full contact, and he's in week nine right now." Jensen was forced out after having shoulder surgery.

Light on for Brockman: Romar noted that the final game of the Black Coaches Association tournament was the game where 'the light went on' for Dentmon, and he's just waiting for the same thing to happen to frosh forward Artem Wallace. How about the other true frosh Jon Brockman? When did the 'light go on' for him? "Probably when the doctors slapped his butt," joked Romar.


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