Romar not panicking yet

Lorenzo Romar has been through this before, but not with this group of guys. During his second season coaching the Washington Huskies, his team ran into a similar run of tough-luck games, using a Nate Robinson three-pointer to jump-start their eventual run to the NCAA tournament. This team isn't quite in the panic zone, but they are certainly getting too close for their comfort.

Is there a number Romar and staff are looking at as a target to use toward making sure they can make it into post-season play? "I have no idea what that would be," Romar said Tuesday when asked about target numbers and total wins he think it might take to dance in March. "It's so early right now. We've only played six (league) games.

"When you're 1-5, you have to be so worried about investing all your energy into the next game."

It's not as if the Huskies (11-6, 1-5) are getting blown out of gyms. But with five of their first seven conference games on the road - and given the opinion that the Pac-10 just might be the toughest conference in America right now - it doesn't give the hoop dawgs a lot of margin for error when they trek over to Pullman on Saturday to face the Washington State Cougars, a team that can no longer be considered an instant win for the upper-eschelon programs of the Pac.

The Huskies know that all too well, especially after dumping both games against the Cougars last year. As talented as Washington's team was, the Cougars posed matchup and style problems that Romar and company could not overcome.

In those two games, they put forth a better effort than we did. We just got outplayed," Romar said of last year's UW-WSU games. "They imposed their will on us."

Washington State (15-3, 4-2), in their first season under Tony Bennett, are much better than last year, which only compounds the Huskies' problems, certainly now that they are starting to think in terms of 'must-wins'. "They are older and more experienced," Romar said of this year's version of the Cougars. "They also have Daven Harmeling, who has helped them to win big games. That, along with a developed Kyle Weaver, and they are playing really good basketball.

They now believe they can win any game they are playing in. And that's half the battle - believing."

In the same six game stretch the Huskies have played, the Cougars have been able to find ways to win at USC and California, two games in which Washington lost heartbreakers. In a league as competitive as the Pac-10 is this year, it's wins on the road that are going to spell the difference between those that will be staying at home for the post-season, and those that move on.

With all teams that start with Dick Bennett's teachings, it all starts on the defensive end for WSU. "They do a great job of keeping guys in front of them. They do a great job of help. Kyle Weaver consistently guards the other team's best player. Ivory Clark, Robbie Cowgill - deceptively good on defense. Derrick Low. All mentally tough.

"They rarely turn the ball over. Rarely is there opportunities in transition for the other team. They go hard, but they also get back in transition."

Enter Dick's son Tony - who not only played under his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, but also was his assistant at Washington State for the past three years. This provided a transition and continuity for the Cougar program to the point where barely a beat was skipped in the interim. In fact, if anything, Bennett has added his own flavor to the Bennett formula, and that has allowed WSU to let its hair down a little more on offense.

Normally a game against a Dick Bennett-influenced team would be a slow-down, snail's pace affair, complete with an offense that would run the shot clock down on nearly every possession. Tony Bennett's brand of his father's basketball means a little looser style - shots taken earlier in possessions, players given more of a green light with open looks, and more creativity. It's clearly meshed well with their normal shut-down philosophy on defense.

He didn't have to lay down the law," Romar said of Bennett's ascendency. "He's not the new sheriff in town. The system is basically intact. For a lot of reasons, continuity there is huge."

What Romar is sensing this year is that his team is much in the same position where the Cougars and Oregon Ducks found themselves last year - losing a lot of last-second nailbiters. "If you look at them now, their nucleus of guys have probably been around for three years," Romar said. "And that's big. We understand there are adjustments that we need to make. We know were that close, and with a few adjustments, we can get over the hump.

"Are we talented enough? Yes. Our talent, outside of UCLA, has put us in a position to win games. We've come close. These aren't games where we haven't had a chance to win. We aren't overmatched. We just haven't come up with the big plays during the game. We'll come up with them."

It's one thing to talk about it happening - but what adjustments is he thinking about making? He's already made multiple adjustments to the starting lineup, still tinkering with the front five that will get the Huskies off to consistently strong starts. But what else?

I'm always thinking about what we can do philosophically," he said. "Lots of times down the stretch we don't come up with the intangible plays. I think our guys are fighting and trying - it's just up to us coaches to continue to build the team. I can't fault any of our guys for being 1-5. We'll get there."

Even though on paper, it's hard not to fault a player like Justin Dentmon - who had two free throws to defeat California on Saturday, but the normally sure-from-the-stripe soph from Carbondale, Ill. - he's top-five in conference in free throw shooting - could only convert one of two - it meant overtime on the road.

Romar isn't biting, instead focusing on the team statistics that show how the Golden Bears completely out-scrapped and out-hustled the Huskies all game long. It's the first game where the Huskies had been out-rebounded (47-36). "We gave up 18 second-chance points," Romar said. "You cut that in half, it's a totally different game."

And while Romar continues to think philosophically about it, he also knows that this current UW team has to experience it - just like the 2003-2004 team did. They came through it alright - they learned from their lessons, as hard as they were to take. Right now Romar is trying to mold a team dominated by underclassmen. Right now, 89 percent of starts, 80 percent of points, 88 percent of rebounds, 78 percent of assists and total minutes have come courtesy of freshmen and sophomores.

"You've got to learn how to do it - that's the bottom line," Romar said. "You've got to go through it. And once you experience some success, you'll understand. And we're going through it right now. And we've had a chance to win all of them, with the exception of UCLA."
Injury report: Quincy Pondexter, who sprained an ankle against California, is expected to play against Washington State. "We'll see," Romar said of Pondexter's status. "He should be ready by Saturday." Romar also updated the status of junior guard Joel Smith, who is recovering from a foot injury. "He will not be available this weekend or next," Romar said. "After that 'there's a real good chance'. So by that timeline, Smith might be ready to come back in time for the Huskies' next road trip - to the Arizona schools starting February 1st.

Player Quotes:
The media was also able to talk for a few minutes with Dentmon, Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman. Here's what they had to say.

Justin Dentmon:
On the team's confidence: It's still a little bit high. We're still striving to get that road win.

On the importance of the WSU game: It's like any other game. We just have to come out and stay focused. It's hard to win on the road. When we click, I think we'll be very dangerous. We have a lot of young guys that are really good.

On what's more important - possibly beating a rival, or getting that first road win?: I'm more pumped up to get the road win more than the rivalry. If we get that first road win, I think that will set the tone.

On what it's going to take to win a close game: We just have to execute down the stretch. We can't play to lose.

On last year's games with WSU: They played harder than we did - in their house and here. We didn't play to their abilities.

On the Cal game: When we were in overtime, I was still thinking, 'We should be out of here, we should be on the bus'. It was hard. It was something I could control. It's hard to come back with two L's. We were trying to take a step forward.

On if Monday's practice was really hard: It was more of a matter of whether we were going to compete or not.

Spencer Hawes (his mother Lisa attended WSU):
On Washington State: They are a tough-minded team. They really do a good job of not making mistakes and capitalizing on yours when you do make a mistake. And this year, they are even running a little bit more, so they are a tough matchup.

On the team's confidence: We expect to be one of the top teams in the country. Up until now we haven't gotten it done. We've come close, but we haven't been able to get over that hump.

On his health: It's not great, but I've got a couple of days to get my health back, to get as close to 100 percent as I can get.

On how important this game is: We definitely need a jump-start. You need as many road victories as you can get.

On the chances of making the tournament: I think where we're at now, it's not great, but it's not insurmountable. We can get it going.

Jon Brockman:
On going on the road to play WSU: I think it's going to be a fun atmosphere. Whenever UW and WSU get together, there's a lot excitement from the fans, the student-body. It should be a good game.

On the Cougars: They've been playing some good basketball. They are impressing a lot of people.

On the road in the Pac-10: This league is so good this year, there's no chance to relax. You have to be playing your best basketball every night. You can't take a night off.

On Aron Baynes: He hurt us last year being so big, so wide, so aggressive. I don't know if he'll play a lot more this year, but I think we match up pretty good against their team. I think it should be a fun game to watch and a fun game to play in.

On getting that first road win: I don't think we can dwell too much over the fact that we haven't won on the road yet. We just need to cut down our mental mistake and try to keep playing consistently, the same way we play at home.

On the year so far: It hasn't gone the way I imagined it, but the beauty of league play is that we get to play everyone twice.

On the freshmen and their learning curve: They are learning every day. Every game they are being put in positions they've never been in before. We've seen them make plays typical of freshmen, but also some veteran plays. It comes with the learning process. They are getting better and better with it each day. Top Stories