Road woes haunt hungry Huskies

None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The Null Set. And the answer to this week's Jeopardy question? How many away wins does the Washington Huskies have this year? Undeterred but still searching, the Huskies (13-7, 3-6) hit the highway on Thursday in search of that elusive first road conquest.

No team in the Pac-10 could provide a finer tonic than the impotent Arizona State Sun Devils (6-14, 0-9), keepers of a current 10-game losing streak - but it's this type of game that scares Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar most; a hungry team that absolutely has nothing to lose. And when the two teams tip off Thursday at 6 PM PST at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, he knows that anything is possible.

First-year Head Coach Herb Sendek, still trying to find his way after coming from North Carolina State, is desperate to right the Devils' current skid. Romar knows ASU will come out firing. "As I watch them play, they are in every game at the half," Romar said of Thursday's opponent. "And for most of them, they are there with eight minutes to go. They are a constantly-improving team. They are gelling with each game."

Arizona State's offense is a little different than the Princeton-style philosophy Sendek ran at North Carolina State, but he utilizes the same basic tenents, including a lot of zone on defense and a very deliberate pace when setting up their offense. "They are going to slow the game down, possession by possession," he said. "We have to make sure that we take care of the basketball and we need to get to the foul line. We need to go out, compete, defend and play Husky Basketball."

'Husky Basketball' made a welcome return to the win column this past weekend with wins over Oregon and Oregon State, and it appears as if this young team might be turning a corner. "We were hoping by the second half of the conference season that they would find themselves," Romar said. "Well, we're at that point and hopefully a lot of lessons have been learned.

"After the Oregon win, I sensed we let our guard down a little against Oregon State, but we had enough guys out there competing that we woke up. I expected on Monday to come in and it might take a little while to get going, but we had a very good practice from the start. Maybe a couple of wins might have rejuvenated them.

For the whole season, Romar and his staff have been trying to get after his young charges to toughen them up for the rigors of Pac-10 play, but at the same time he understood he couldn't go yelling and screaming at an inexperienced group always teetering on the ledge of confidence. "You want to toe that line in terms of discipline and adhering to the rules, but at the same time you can't break them all the way down so that they have no confidence at all," he said. "It's a fine line. The fact of losing is pretty humbling in and of itself. But you can't improve until you realize you need to improve. And I think we're at that point."

Quincy Pondexter is a believer. He's getting healthy again (he injured his ankle against California), and he's ready to pull his weight for a final stretch run toward a possible NCAA Tournament berth. But everything is going to have to break right for the Huskies to even have a reasonable chance. "Early on I would miss a lot of boxouts, give up a lot of points on the defensive end, but now I'm learning to trust my teammates better," he said when asked about becoming a smarter player for the college game. "I'm becoming more of a complete player."

And one thing is for sure - this UW team can't look back. Memories of their current two-game winning streak and a few bucks can buy them a latte at the corner Starbucks, but if they don't continue to ramp up their level of play they will find themselves a constant presence near the bottom of the Pac-10 fishbowl.

Oregon and Washington State finished 7th and 10th respectively last year, and they had a bunch of very close losses. Washington appears to be going through that exact same phase in their attempts to break the shackles of inexperience. Even busting out a close win in their first road test of the year against USC may not have necessarily turned their season around. But it's interesting to think about.

"It might have been different for the UCLA game, but even at California and Stanford we had chances to close those games out," Romar said. "If you're good enough, you win the close ones."

"We have to play like our backs are against the wall," added frosh center Spencer Hawes. "I don't think we've played all that poorly on the road for the most part. We just haven't closed 'em out."

Sophomore Captain Jon Brockman prefers to look ahead. "We can all talk about last week, but the Arizona trip is what we face now," he said, matter-of-factly. "If we don't get it done this weekend, last weekend means nothing."

That means an Arizona road split - which would have done them just fine in a hypothetical scenario at the beginning of the season - doesn't cut the mustard anymore. "We're trying to win every game we play," said Romar. "When we were 1-6, we were trying to do that too. It just didn't work out."

"We just need to come out and learn how to deal with that adversity," Pondexter added. "We need to come out with a win. We know we can play with anyone in the league."

So we come back to the beginning; why has it been so difficult to win on the road this year? Last year's UW team went 6-3 on the road in-conference. But that team was also senior-laden, and had an All-American go-to guy. Go-to guys are starting to emerge with this year's team, but mostly it's been about youth, and how that youth has had to graduate from the University of Hard Knocks first before matriculating toward bigger and better things.

"There's no book you can read, no film you can watch," Romar said of life on the road in the Pac-10. "They had to experience it for themselves."

Well...coach left out one thing the staff likes to do to try and provide their young men that mental edge they'll need when playing under duress. Not to put too fine a point on it, but essentially they throw the kitchen sink at them. During scrimmage time, anything that could go wrong for the starting five often will - and it will often defy logic in the process.

But there is always a method behind the madness.

"We might make some traveling calls, call a technical on a slight movement in body language, change the score on them," Romar said, citing some examples where he intentionally tried to make things uncomfortable, to the point where they might mentally snap from the pressure.

"They simulate it (road game) by having everything go against us," Brockman added. "Every block is a charge and every charge is a block. It's really frustrating, and when you're tired and giving your full effort, you feel like you're being cheated in a way. And it's an accurate representation of how it is on the road. You just have to dig deep and keep going.

"We can't let the road be a factor, we have to play the same way all the time."
Notes:
Injury update: The Huskies will be playing once again without the services of Joel Smith. The junior guard from Lompoc, Calif. - by way of Brewster Academy in New Hampshire - is still recovering from foot surgery he had in the summer and a setback to that same foot in November. "We thought this was going to be the week, but it got pushed back," Romar said of Smith's return. We'll see." There has been no drop-dead date set for when Romar would consider not playing Smith at all this year, but this situation is starting to feel exactly like the Harvey Perry situation from one year ago. Perry ended up redshirting because of a back injury, and Smith does have a redshirt year available if he chooses to use it.

Other than Smith, the team appears to be about as healthy as it has been in some time. Hawes appears to be over that double-whammy of the flu and a twisted ankle he suffered the day before the Huskies' loss to Washington State, and Pondexter appears to be totally over his twisted ankle. "I feel like I have more of a hop in my step," Hawes said. "Things are coming together." In fact, Romar made note Tuesday that the Huskies actually could go 5-5 with a sub that wasn't a coach - the first time that's happened in a long time. "Yesterday it was interesting to see a sub on the sideline," Romar said. "Paul (Fortier) didn't have to practice." Tim Morris, who is sitting out per transfer rules, was the 11th player available.

Looking for a killer: Romar talked at length Tuesday about finding those prospects that just have it in their DNA - the ability to not let anything get to them and to play cool under pressure. "Some guys are just poised and some create a game within the game," he said. "Most of it is inherent. When we recruit, we look for it. We want guys that are going to be assassins out on the court, cold-blooded. Some of that can be acquired by experience."

The New Go-To Guy: Jon Brockman has been on a bit of a tear of late, averaging 16.3 points per game his last eight - scoring in double-digits in all of them. He also leads the Pac-10 with eight double-doubles. "Once I get the ball in the middle, it opens things up a lot," Brockman said of his increased role offensively. "I can kick it outside, I can take it hard to the basket. The coaches have encouraged me to be more aggressive as a scorer. And when Spencer was out, we still needed something down low. But I see it more as an effort thing, just doing the dirty work. I've noticed guys are starting to play tougher on the offensive and defensive ends, so maybe it's rubbing off."

When there's a Will...: Romar had this to say about the news that former UW guard Will Conroy had signed a 10-day contract with the Memphis Grizzlies..."To know where he's come from and to know how hard he's worked and will continue to work, it's so exciting. So many young players think that playing in the NBA is their birthright, but Will never approached it that way. He busted his tail to get there. He was so close to getting on San Antonio's roster last year, but when they found out about the hairline fracture, there was a change in plans. When a guy like Will is hurt like that, it's like making sure they are on house arrest, and even then they try to figure out a way to play on one leg. He continued to work and has had a phenomenal year in the NBDL.

Odds and Ends: There is no TV for the Arizona State game, and there are no plans to run anything locally through Comcast or through a closed-circuit broadcast on campus ... Romar was asked if he planned on any starting roster changes for the ASU game now that Hawes appears healthy, and he said no. When Hawes was asked about wanting to start, he admitted that he thinks about it a little bit, but he also said that he needs to work hard to get that spot back.


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