Huskies up against it

Sometimes, Lorenzo Romar must feel like a second father. The Washington Head Basketball Coach has been dealing with a lot of youthful hoops indiscretions during the 2006-07 season, and ironically enough after two close losses, the team just might be coming out of the fog. Question is, is it too late?

Despite back-to-back four-point losses to two top-ten teams (Washington State and Pittsburgh) in the past week, Romar has seen a change in his team, one that that started the season top-heavy with inexperience. "We weren't rewarded by two victories, but we were rewarded by trying to play the right way, the way it's supposed to be done," he said Monday. "We stand a better chance of being successful."

It doesn't pass a strict logic test, but upon closer inspection Romar's words ring true. In the last four games, Romar feels that the team is playing better defense, paying attention to detail and understanding the bigger concepts the coaches are trying to teach. During that same stretch of four games, the Huskies have held opponents to just over 60 points a game - nearly 14 points better than their season average.

Romar the Father believes that some of it stems from the basic belief that younger people are not inclined to believe their elders until they learn some hard lessons along the way, thus coming full-circle to the idea that the coach do, in fact, understand a thing or two about the game of basketball, and that their way of play can be the right way.

"I think there's been some of that, just like there was four years ago," Romar admitted. And just like four years ago, the Huskies (16-10, 6-8) have a make-or-break game against Oregon State (10-18, 2-13), one that will ultimately shape their post-season fate.

Only this time, they don't have 13 conference games left to help their case. Now they only have four. "Now our backs are against the wall," Romar said, matter-of-factly. "I don't think we have a whole lot of room to make a whole lot of mistakes."

For Freshman Spencer Hawes, all the blood, sweat and tears laid out during a season full of ups and downs will have been worth it if the Huskies can take advantage with a final four-game sweep. "The grind of the season is over now, it's time for the stretch run and it's fun if you look at it as a challenge," he said. "It's a great opportunity for us, and if we can capitalize a lot of good things can happen for us."

And while fans are looking at the long labyrinth of numbers that comprise strength of schedule, rating percentage index, as well as the complex and never-ending list of possibilities in terms of Washington getting into the NCAA tournament, Romar isn't there yet. He knows too well what can happen when teams look ahead. But again, the irony of the season comes front and center. At this point, the Huskies have to take on all comers. They have no choice.

"Nothing means anything if we don't take care of our business," he said, emphatically. "We have to go out and perform - bottom line. We take care of that, we think the chips will fall in the right places. The only thing we need to understand is how hard we have to compete Thursday night to be successful. The speculation, the RPI ... everything, it's irrelevent. Do we understand how hard we need to compete? If we do, everything else will take care of itself."

Still, it doesn't keep the national pundits from talking. Steve Lavin reportedly predicted on ESPN that Washington would make the NCAA tournament. Lavin, who coached UCLA, was an assistant for the Bruins at the same time Romar was. "I haven't talked to Steve about it, and I don't know if he's watched us play recently...maybe he has and maybe he sees the same things we see as coaches, that we're playing the type of basketball that's consistent in how you win games," Romar said of Lavin's comments.

Despite his protestations about 'one game at a time', Romar couldn't escape the inevitable questions about how many Pac-10 teams should earn a trip to the post-season. "I think the conference is really strong this year," he said. "The way it looks now, Arizona, us, Oregon and Cal ... from those four, Arizona and Oregon would probably be in at this point. It probably ends up between us and Cal and how we finish."

First up Thursday is the Beavers. "They are big and physical and there are things they do that we have to defend," Romar said about playing Oregon State. "And we have to take care of the basketball. I think we turned it over three out of the first four plays the last time we played them."

While most would chalk up a win for the Huskies in Corvallis - even on the road - would it have benefitted the Huskies to play Oregon first? Right now the Ducks are reeling, having lost six of eight since the last time the two teams hooked up, with six of those games on the road. Not to Romar's way of thinking.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "We've got Oregon State next, and it doesn't matter if they are ranked No. 1 or 1000. At this point, whoever you play, you have to go get them. It's like the NCAA tournament. You've got to beat them all. That's how I feel about it."

Hawes feels the same way, but is expecting a little more of a charge on Saturday - more than anything just because it's the Huskies and the Ducks. "You ask any Husky fan and they'd argue that Washington's biggest rival is either Washington State or Oregon," he said. "You'd get a good debate out of that. The same is almost true with Oregon State, maybe not the same level. They are big games, and there's always a little extra incentive."

The way the Huskies are playing right now, the Beavers should present a solid matchup. They are strong in the frontcourt, which has also become the Huskies' strength. Both teams solidly out-rebounded their opponent in their last game, and both came up just four points shy on the road - the Beavers losing 84-80 in overtime at California.

The UW coaching staff has had to retool their thinking when it came to the makeup of the team, something that has manifested itself in a much stronger presence inside than perhaps the balance they were originally hoping for. "Back in November we thought we would have quicker guys available (Joel Smith and Harvey Perry) and more experience," Romar said. "And I think we've been more physical now and gone more to our inside guys."

So instead of a team that has made a meal out of transition offense in the past, the Huskies are now picking and choosing their spots to run. It's not out of their arsenal, but the up-tempo style that has always been a prominent feature of past Romar teams is not front and center right now. And as such, there have been growing pains, like turnovers based on sloppy passes trying to feed the post, for instance. But as the identity has been forged over time, so to have the roles of those trying to make the best out of what they have.

"People like to win, and whatever is going to produce victories is what we're going to try to do," Romar said. "Right now I think we're playing at a level where we can be competitive in the NCAA tournament if we're able to get there." And this has definitely played into Hawes' hands. "About two weeks ago you started to see more of a smile on his face, the old Spencer coming back," Romar added.

"We've started to play with our strengths," Hawes said. "People know their roles better. The way we're playing, if you look at everything, we've been a lot more efficient and we've turned a corner."

But what is around that corner remains to be seen.
Going to Greece: Romar first talked about a team trip to Greece during his Monday radio show. It appears as if the trip will take place in late August, one the team is allowed to take every four years per NCAA rules. "It's something we've been looking at," Romar said when asked about the trip. "With pretty much the entire team back, I thought it was a great opportunity for everyone to be playing together some more. I think next year we're going to be a veteran team, and I think it can do nothing but help us." Incoming freshmen cannot take the trip.

So why Greece over other parts of the world? "You want to get a blend," Romar said. "The competition is good. It's a decent place to go. It's also going to be an educational situation."

A new twist for this Oliver: Adrian Oliver may have had his break-out game Saturday against Pittsburgh. In the 65-61 loss, the freshman from Modesto, Calif. had eight points, four rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes of action, the second-straight game in which he's played over 30 minutes. "He's had to take a step back," Romar said about Oliver's maturation as a player at the D1 level. "He was a scorer. He averaged 27 points as a junior and 26 as a senior, and this year showed signs he was going to score. His nature is that he has a good feel for offense. But here, to get on the floor he had to play with more intensity and he had to play better defense. To his credit, he has really tried to be a fighter out there and has gotten better defensively, and that had earned him the right to get on the floor and play. Adrian has taken upon himself to do the things we've asked of him. He's a good rebounder for his size and he's becoming more of a playmaker on the offensive end."

Oliver looks to have displaced Phil Nelson for playing time. "It's been more a reward for Adrian for competing," Romar added. "We're trying to win games, and whoever is out there doing it are the ones we're going to put out there." Top Stories