2) Who will start at shooting guard?
The biggest position battle in camp highlights the depth of talent in the program. Junior sharpshooter Ryan Appleby is the most dangerous offensive performer in the group (maybe the team) and has added a nice slash to the hoop to his impressive arsenal. Unfortunately, last season Appleby proved to be a bit of a liability on defense and will need to make substantial improvements if he hopes to start. The junior from Stanwood may be more useful playing the role of "zone-buster" for the Dawgs, adding instant offense off the bench, but is sure to see plenty of playing time either way. "I don't really have a preference either way," he said recently. "You know, whatever helps the team out. If I can bring energy off the bench, than that's cool with me. It's just really not that big of a deal, as long as I play."
Joel Smith can play either the two or the three with a solid jump shot coupled with his sensational athleticism, but has had trouble maintaining his focus during game situations. He is also a sterling defender when his head is where it should be, but is coming off a stress fracture in his foot and will be at a conditioning disadvantage returning shortly before the first regular season game of the season.
Two much heralded freshman enter the mix and could be the frontrunners to start. Returning from a serious back injury that saw him sidelined him all of last season, multi skilled red shirt freshman Harvey Perry possesses an NBA body, an adequate jumper with excellent handles and is another fantastic defender. If Perry can coax his jumper to fall with consistency, as he displayed at Husky Hoopla, he may find his way into the starting lineup.
Potentially the biggest impact player of the group, Adrian Oliver's multi-faceted game reminds many of another recent Husky who played the same position; Brandon Roy. While Oliver lacks the marvelous athleticism of Smith and Perry, he possesses such a wide array of advanced skills at both the point and the two, that he is certain to see significant action. Oliver has proven to be a steady backcourt mate for point guard Justin Dentmon, as they have quickly developed an uncanny chemistry, seemingly switching roles at will.
The wildcard in this discussion is Kaiser Oregon native Phil Nelson. At 6-8 with guard like attributes, Nelson presents a major match up problem for rival teams. Regarded as one of the finest long range shooters in the country as a high school senior, Nelson is looking to improve his defense and rebounding skills and make a major impact immediately.
With so many versatile athletes in the fold, coach Romar has the luxury of having fresh legs in the game at all times. He can also stretch the floor like no other team in the conference. Imagine a lineup that includes Adrian Oliver, Ryan Appleby and Phil Nelson on the court at the same time, and what opposing teams would have to do to defend them. Than imagine what Spencer Hawes and John Brockman might be able to do with that much space in the middle. Whatever the outcome, all five players will see plenty of action in Coach Romar's high octane offense, and might just form one of the deadliest backcourts in the country..
3) How will Coach Romar find minutes for all of his players?
The phrase ‘embarrassment of riches' is often used to describe the backcourt depth for the 2006 Huskies, but with one of the nations top recruiting classes added to a fair amount of returning depth, spare minutes are going to be hard to come by. Returnees' Ryan Applebee, Joel Smith, Harvey Perry and Walk on Brandon Burmeister will find themselves sharing time with newcomers Quincy Pondexter, Adrian Oliver and Phil Nelson, mainly between the shooting guard and small forward positions.
Fortunately, versatility is another trait the Husky coaches value greatly, and they recruit accordingly." Man, they've had me at every position from one to five," explains Quincy Pondexter. "It's a really fast running style and we have to be ready to play anywhere."
Chemistry and teamwork have always been hallmarks of Romar led teams, but the popular coach will be walking a thin line with so many equally talented players. With front court depth being a concern, Coach Romar may find himself at times running out a smaller lineup that could see Quincy Pondexter, Phil Nelson or even Harvey Perry playing out of position at the four, alleviating some of the crowding on the wing. Small ball has always been a major characteristic of Romar led teams and as a result, Washington's success or failure this year may hinge on his ability to get his players to buy into taking on new, unfamiliar roles. Meanwhile, the players will need to accept the fact that their coach knows what he is doing and is looking out for what he deems best for the team's interests.
4) Who will back up the post?
When Joe Wolfinger went down with a stress fracture, The Huskies went from one of the deepest teams in the conference down low, to a front court with some major concerns. With Spencer Hawes returning from injury and John Brockman a magnet for foul trouble, the Dawgs front court reserves will play a key role in the team's success or failure.
Artem Wallace was considered a recruiting coup when he announced his commitment to Washington back in June of 04'. The high flying, big bodied post was being heavily recruited by UCLA, Stanford and Kansas but instead chose to bring his spectacular high wire act to Hec Ed, where he struggled to find his groove, eventually finding himself sitting on the bench after Senior Mike Jensen returned from injury.
Needless to say, Wallace has yet to prove that he can make an impact at the division one level, and though those close to the team believe he is poised for a breakout season, his tendency to disappear during play remains a concern. Wallace's blend of size and athleticism make him one of the most intriguing players on the Huskies roster, and he could end up being among the teams biggest surprises if Coach Romar can harness his considerable potential.
"I'm definitely excited to get more time and do whatever Coach asks me to do and give everything I have," Wallace said during the pre-season.
With the Dawgs loaded with scoring depth, defense and rebounding will be the back up post's primary assignment. Senior forward and Issaquah native Hans Gasser, coming off a summer shoulder injury is a polished offensive player, but lacks the size and foot speed to guard many of the conferences bigger posts, and consequently, isn't the ideal back up defender. Gasser though, is a tireless worker, and another match up concern for opponents with his deadly outside game.
Phil Nelson again plays the role of Wildcard down low. Though 6-8, Nelson isn't a natural posts being of slight build, but given the right circumstances, Nelson could see time down low.
"Right now Phil's playing some with us down low," said Wallace regarding his younger teammate. "In practice he'll do a couple drills with the guards and than a couple with the bigs. I don't really see him playing in the post when Spencer comes back, but you never know."
"I don't know how much Phil is going to play in the post because he's such an excellent shooter, but he's probably got the toughest deal out of all of us," said team captain Jon Brockman. "It's not like the frosh don't have enough to learn as it is. "He has to learn both the guard and the post so he has to literally know what every guy on the court is doing."
If the Dawgs are to make a deep run in the tournament, Wallace, Gasser and even Nelson are going to have to step up their post play, and be prepared to make major contributions every night.
5) Will the real Jon Brockman please stand up?
If you asked most Husky basketball fans if they felt that Jon Brockman lived up to their expectations during his freshman campaign, the answer would probably be a resounding no. As one of the most highly decorated recruits to ever enter the program, Brockman's much ballyhooed tenacity and competitiveness were clearly evident from day one. What surprised many people locally as well as around the county was the lack of offensive polish in his game, not just from outside, but close to the hoop as well. Never a focal point in the offense, "the Beast" as he came to be called, seemed to struggle in finding his rhythm within the flow of the game.
"I never really expected myself to come out and lead the league in scoring or anything like that," he explained. "I knew I was going to play some big minutes and help the team with rebounding and defense, but with Brandon (Roy), Bobby (Jones) and Jamaal (Williams), they were going to be doing most of the scoring for us, and I just tried to find my niche."
Recognizing an area that needed attention and never one to back down from a challenge, Brockman spent several hours a day during the off season, working out with an old coach at a gym close to his home in Snohomish. The main focus of those workouts? His outside shot and footwork. Brockman will never be a significant long range threat, but defenders shouldn't be able to sag on him any longer as his shot has improved considerably over the last few months.
"This year I just feel so much more comfortable with what I'm doing on the court," he said. "Everything feels a lot more natural and my brain isn't in a dozen different places at the same time." More confident in with the mental aspects of Coach Romar's game plan, Brockman explains the difference. "Where am I supposed to go on defense, what are we running on offense? I can relax a little bit more because it's almost like my bodies been trained and knows what to do so that my brain can focus on other things," he said. "It's just a lot more relaxing on the court."
One area that needed no improvement was leadership skills. During open gyms throughout the summer, the 6-7 forward emerged as the undeniable leader amongst his teammates, eventually being unanimously honored by his teammates as team captain, a first for a sophomore at Washington. The Wooden award candidate identified with his new teammates plight right from the outset.
"I know exactly what these guys are feeling," Brockman said. "I feel like yesterday I was where they are right now." Not that they need any help with the physical aspects of the game. "What I really think they need the most help with is encouragement and to be there whenever they need help on a certain play or to be brought up when they get frustrated.
"They work really hard and we are going to expect a lot out of them."
A more confident, more polished Jon Brockman emerged over the summer, encouraged by the arrival of close friend Spencer Hawes and the duo's chemistry was immediately apparent on the court. Consistently finding each other with occasionally spectacular interior passing, Brockman was a regular beneficiary of Hawes's phenomenal passing ability, something that should translate well to the regular season.
"Since we were all here together this summer, we really had a chance to grow and come together as a team," Brockman said.
Administering daily beatings to his teammates, Brockman showed no mercy, and none of the prior years' tentativeness down low, which is good news for coach Romar, whose team now features one of the top front courts in the country. A tougher, more assertive John Brockman will be a welcome site for Husky fans, who should finally see the kind of contributions from the former McDonald's All American that were expecting to emerge the season before.
6) Finally, how much can fans expect from the freshman?
Last season, Justin Dentmon's maturity over the course of the year was a key ingredient in the team's run to the sweet 16, and his success highlights one of the biggest challenges for NCAA coaches.
How to best use a talented freshman who clearly has the skills to contribute right away. It's a question that Coach Romar is dealing with this very moment, and isn't an easy one to answer. Physical tools are relatively easy to classify and determine. It's the player's ability to handle all of the emotional aspects of the college game that can be so challenging, and the reason why the NCAA tournament is so captivating to we the fans.
"Practice is pretty much what I expected," shared Adrian Oliver about adjusting to being an elite college athlete. "It's been tough, especially for us freshman. The coaches seem to get on mine and Quincy's case a lot. I've talked to Jamaal about it and he says it's because they see a lot in us and to stay in there and not get frustrated. It's something I think every freshman goes through, and we're getting it"
The coaches are tough because they need to be. The mental aspects of the season can be just as challenging as the physical ones and the Husky players have to be ready for anything.
"They get on you about the smallest little things sometimes," said Oliver. "Even though you think you did it right, you did it wrong so you just have to nod your head and say yes sir. They've been on us for every possible thing they could be."
Coach Cameron Dollar believes it's just part of the maturation process.
"It's always a transition for the new guys who have never practiced with us before, to see how we do things and the intensity that we do things," Dollar said. "What we expect out of them. It can be a challenging time for the freshman, but it's been good. All the young guys have done a good job of adjusting and progressing well."
Had Justin Dentmon closed up shop and fell into despair after his catastrophic brain fart against Stanford, he may have never emerged as one of the Huskies biggest weapons in the NCAA tournament. Credit his success to a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude as well as a coaching environment that nurturers players through the bad as well as the good.
Highly rated recruiting classes are something new to Husky fans that are used to seeing top talent playing against their home town squad rather than on it, but all that has changed under Lorenzo Romar. As the college game has evolved over the years and the NBA has dictated that the top high school talent now need a year of seasoning at the college level, freshmen will impact the game now more than ever.
Washington fans, caught up in a tidal wave of the recent on court and recruiting success, now have to figure out to manage their own hyped up expectations with a healthy dose of reality. The Husky freshman class is superb no doubt, but what kind of contributions can fans truly expect to see? If Jon Brockman's struggles last year taught fans anything, it's that even the most highly touted talent can falter under unreasonable expectations.
Spencer Hawes is as close to a can't miss prospect as the college game has seen in years. His offensive skills are so advanced that he could probably have flourished in the NBA while he was still a high school senior. That said, even the mightiest of can't-miss stars can be humbled. Arizona's Mustafa Shakur and Oregon's Malik Hairston are two recent examples of top rated players who haven't managed to meet the fans (or their own) often unfair expectations.
Is it reasonable to expect Spencer Hawes to score 15 points and gather 10 rebounds a night? Maybe, but chances are it won't happen. Sharing the ball with returnee's Justin Dentmon, Ryan Applebee and John Brockman means that sensational freshman like Quincy Pondexter, Adrian Oliver, Phil Nelson and Harvey Perry probably aren't going to light up the scoreboard the way many fans are expecting.
While the Huskies will probably feature several players averaging double digits, it's doubtful they will be setting any individual scoring records. That just isn't a hallmark of Coach Romar's blistering offense. The Husky offense thrives on unselfish play and the more balance across the box score, the better the results in the standings will be.
With the start of the regular season just around the corner, never has the University of Washington basketball team received more attention, and all eyes will be watching as the questions are answered over the next 5 months. The future is now for Huskies fans, and it should be one great ride!
Six Questions - Pts. 2-6
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