Romar teaching new Dawgs some old tricks

SEATTLE - It's cold outside, sports fans. What little summer mother nature offered Seattlelites has come and gone, and that means one thing for Husky fans; basketball season is here! After the most hyped season in Washington basketball history ended with an anticlimactic thud, the long wait has come to an end - and with it, much of the momentum that propelled the team the last half a decade.

The Dawgs are growing up, and in more ways than one. Gone are the TV cameras and constant media attention surrounding Seattle Prep superstar Spencer Hawes, replaced by a laser focus and cool sense of purpose that was clearly missing last season.

"I think that when we didn't make it to post season play, it handled all of the expectations," explained a confident Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar, referring to the national media's seeming lack of respect for his team. "We're not going to throw in the towel because they picked us eighth (in the Pac-10 pre-season poll)."

With a schedule that includes 18 games against the strongest Pac-10 in history, Romar is well aware of the challenge his Dawgs face in trying to keep up with the rest of the league. Romar is entering his sixth year coaching his alma-mater, and it's not getting any easier.

"The conference is not stepping back, they're moving forward, and we need to move forward with it," he said.

Fresh off a satisfying trip to Greece - one that saw the Huskies integrate three (sort of) new players that will play key roles with the team this year - the affable coach shared some thoughts on the trip.

"There's something about going overseas, that when you don't have the cell phones, you actually have to talk to each other," Romar said with a laugh, only half kidding. "There are so many gadgets now with technology; they've got five different units to text, e-mail, and talk on the phone. This trip forced us all to be really, really together."

Apparently captain Jon Brockman has a bit of a wild side, and took some time off to pursue a passion on the trip that had very little to do with basketball - cliff diving. This left his coach and teammates shaking their heads in disbelief.

"Brockman's crazy," Romar said, laughing again. "He'll jump from anywhere. Thank goodness it's water because he's a thrill seeker. I told him he'd win on that show 'Fear Factor'."

As for the team's 2-3 performance with a short roster against veteran Greek professional teams, there were several positives to build on, especially from three veterans who have been out of action for over a year.

"They did a nice job for us" said Romar, referring to guards Tim Morris and Joel Smith, as well as 7-foot-1 center Joe Wolfinger, all of whom sat out last year for one reason or another. Morris sat out as a transfer from Stanford, and both Smith and Wolfinger were out nursing injuries.

"Tim and Joel are two big, strong, athletic wings that have the ability to defend on the perimeter," Romar said. Morris and Smith will both be looked upon to anchor a defense that last season was porous at best last year, while adding some serious firepower from the wing.

They will have help in the middle as well, in the form of Wolfinger, who is finally recovered from a foot stress fracture.

"Big Joe does such a good job of knocking his shots down," Romar explained. "He really can stretch defenses, and he doesn't mind getting in there and banging either."

How many teams in the country can boast about having a 7-foot-1 sharpshooter?

"He adds an element that a big guy that can shoot really opens up the middle," Romar added. "We kind of had that with Mike Jensen being able to step out like that."

Only Jensen was just 6-foot-8.

"Wolf at his size makes it hard for people to get to his shot."

And while there will be the inevitable comparisons between Wolfinger and Hawes, Romar is quick to squash that kind of talk. "Joe and Spencer are totally different players," he declared. "We're talking about someone who hasn't practiced in a year, and hasn't ever played a college game. Spencer's probably more mobile and definitely better around the basket, but Joe's best days are ahead of him."

Romar also talked about his promising freshman class. A class that, while lacking the superstar players of previous years, still shows significant potential.

"The freshmen have done a nice job so far," he said. "They're eager to learn."

As to whether or not one of them could play their way into the starting lineup…"There are definitely starting spots open, and we've never been shy to start freshmen.

"I think it's going to be hard to move Brockman out of the starting lineup," Romar added with a chuckle, talking about his starters. "Quincy Pondexter, I wouldn't say has nailed down a starting spot, but he's certainly done a nice job with us. We've got seven perimeter players and they all have an opportunity."

Having so many able bodies has Romar excited heading into the team's first practice.

"It's night and day versus last year," he said. "We've got four new perimeter players that did not play for us last year and will have an opportunity to contribute, that's for sure."

And they've got it where it counts.

"They are more of a defensive group," Romar suggested, referring to Morris, Smith and freshmen Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday. "All four of those guys are as good or better (defensively) than we had last year."

The teams emphasis on defense will be noticeable as well.

"I think it will be more pressure than we had last year," Romar said, understating the obvious. "This team is not quite as quick as (2004-06 teams) but they're quick and this group is longer than those teams were. We'll still try to get to you and force turnovers and force the opposition to be a little more uncomfortable with the basketball. Last year we weren't able to do that."

And they are focused.

"We're hopeful to create an identity that isn't in highlights or the baskets that we make, but in getting stops, rebounding the ball and making the tough plays," Romar said.

The Hoop Dawgs are headed back to the drawing board. Gone is the frenzied atmosphere of Husky Hoopla, replaced by a return weekend to St Martin's College in Lacey for the opening of practice, where they can focus without the glare of the spotlight.

"It's just a way for us to get away - to be together and concentrate with no distractions," Romar said. "We don't just practice together; we eat together – it's like a retreat, and I like that."

The biggest change is the most important one, and something that could only improve with time; experience.

"I'm not trying to make excuses, but last year coaches from around the country would call me chuckling, saying I've watched your games – it's gets better coach, trust me,'" Romar said.

"Right away we can tell in practices that there are certain things we don't have to harp on. There's a certain level of commitment that the older guys seem to understand and they're already out there trying to demonstrate to the young players. It makes a difference."

It also helps that he has enough bodies to practice straight-up, as opposed to a year ago."

"Last year, the majority of our preseason practices, we had nine players," Romar said. "Coach (Paul) Fortier made 10, Coach (Cameron) Dollar made 11, and than Coach Dollar made 10 when Coach Fortier couldn't go."

The numbers game begs another question; with a roster of 13 quality players, how can he find playing time for everyone?

"I don't know if there is any team in the country that plays 13 guys, so I think every coach in the country has the same problem," Romar said. "Someone is going to end up the odd man. We (coaches) don't make that decision – the players make the decision.

But after last year's disappointment - injuries and inexperience ravaged the team - having 13 quality players to choose from is a pretty good problem to have. Top Stories