UW Basketball finds identity and the Madness

SEATTLE - Huskies fans are rejoicing. The team that was, then wasn't, is back on again and headed to the NCAA Tournament after the most tumultuous season in Lorenzo Romar's eight year tenure at Washington. Selection Sunday turned into Celebration Sunday, a chance for Husky Nation to take a collective breather after a gut-wrenching season.

It was a season that teetered on the brink of total collapse just six weeks ago when they opened conference play in the Pac-10 cellar.

The Huskies entered the 2009-2010 season surrounded by a lot of hype – much of it justifiable. Washington returned seven key members of their rotation from last season's Pac-10 Championship squad, and though the graduation of Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon left two gaping holes in the starting lineup, there was no denying the amount of talent assembled on this year's roster.

Heading into the season, the hype surrounding Washington had reached a fevered pitch, but what few individuals beyond the coaching staff understood was just how long it would take for the young Huskies to learn how to play together as a team.

With a young backcourt full of potential, a Pac-10 player of the Year candidate and a talented roster spanning the entire length of the bench, the Huskies appeared poised to burst into the national spotlight. After a less-than-stellar league opening that found them 1-3 and searching for answers, the Huskies' inexperienced rotation was quickly exposed. The front court in particular, which was a major question mark before the season began, looked especially vulnerable.

Senior Quincy Pondexter roared out of the gates, debuting a re-worked jumper and a new perimeter orientation. The eventual five-time Pac-10 Player of the Week, who would finish the season with nearly 20 points and eight rebounds per game, was at times unstoppable. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of his teammates. While Pondexter pushed ahead full throttle, cracks began to appear with the rest of the team, and the ship that started out like a battle cruiser began to look more like the Titanic.

Disappointed Husky fans needed a scapegoat, so they lashed out at sophomore Isaiah Thomas - last season's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. Early on, he slowly wilted under the constant criticism. Some of that criticism was justified. Thomas has always been a flashy scoring machine whose tendency to over-penetrate, as well his inconsistency from outside, would get him in hot water from time to time.

But fans missed the bigger picture. As talented as Thomas is, he was still just another player on the team trying to find his role. Over the course of the Pac-10 season, he began to adapt. Thomas, a naturally gifted passer and playmaker, started to find his teammates, and his new role as floor general took root. Coupled with a newfound dedication to defense and rebounding, the former Curtis star managed to make his presence felt, despite his offensive struggles. He was one player that stepped up to Lorenzo Romar's challenge of playing 'Husky Basketball'.

But Thomas needed help – And one teammate in particular answered the call.

As coach Romar searched for a rotation that clicked, it wasn't until junior Justin Holiday entered the starting lineup that things began to fall into place. Despite his outrageous skills on the defensive end, Holiday struggled to find ways to contribute on offense during his first two-and-a-half seasons, but Romar's faith in him began to pay off. After missing the Arizona road trip due to an academic mix-up, 'The Mantiss' - as his most diehard fans refer to him - invigorated UW with his relentless energy and presence around the hoop. He also unveiled a solid mid-range jump-shot, and his game blossomed as a result.

On January 14th, Holiday entered the lineup to help guide UW to a 33-point win over Stanford at Bank of America Arena. That was 18 games ago, and Washington subsequently went 14-4. It was also about that time that junior Venoy Overton began to step up his game. Mostly limited to transition baskets in his two previous seasons, Overton's improving range and better understanding of the offense propelled him into a more significant offensive role, nearly doubling his scoring from a year ago. He also has a reborn confidence in his jumper shot, as witnessed by his clutch 3-point shooting in the Huskies' Pac-10 Tournament championship game win over California.

But the Hoop Dawgs were still stuck in neutral under the hoop, and with each passing game it became more and more apparent that they were going nowhere in the post-season without significant improvement in the post. Enter Matthew Bryan-Amaning, the enigmatic London native who made the transition from struggler to star in the span of a month. In his last 11 games, the 6-foot-9 forward/center has been a revelation to the tune of 12.3 points and eight rebounds a game, while shooting better than 60 percent from the floor.

There's no arguing that without Pondexter and Thomas, the Huskies wouldn't have been a tournament team, but no player did more to change UW's fortunes in the second half of conference play than Bryan-Amaning.

With the pieces finally falling into place and their identity coming together, the Huskies caught lightning in a bottle. With a conference tournament championship secured - as well as the NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it - Washington is now a squad full of talented individuals with a collective goal as unselfish, intimidating, motivated defenders. It's 'Husky Basketball' stripped down to its core – and now they're on a roll.

As it turned out, the Huskies would have probably left out of the tournament had they not won the conference tournament, a difficult lesson Arizona State was left sitting home to digest.

The Huskies now race into the tournament with a full head of steam and momentum on their side. Winners of seven in a row, including six-straight away from home, they certainly appear to be peaking at the right time. While most tournament-bound teams were fending off the doldrums and tired legs of February, the Huskies were busy improving – and there's a lot more in the tank.

Elston Turner, Scott Suggs, Tyreese Breshers and Abdul Gaddy are just starting to scratch the surface of their considerable potential. Turner in particular, is a gamer and averaged over 20 minutes per contest for the Huskies in Washington's two NCAA Tournament appearances last season. During this last run of six-straight road and neutral-court victories, the sophomore from Texas has averaged five points and 15 minutes played per game, so his game seems to be rounding nicely into post-season form.

The Huskies head into the NCAA Tournament with their opening round game against Marquette in relative obscurity. They're so under the radar that ESPN's Pat Forde called the game one of the most intriguing first-round matchups in the tournament. The problem was, he had Marquette playing Wisconsin.

I'm sure this suits coach Romar just fine. This group of junkyard dawns didn't thrive in the harsh glare of the spotlight. Like Romar mentioned on Sunday, the progress that he saw during the season didn't fully emerge from the darkness until only recently. They didn't begin to harness their full potential until they were perched on the precipice of disaster without a net. They had nobody left to care, except themselves and the unwavering support of the Dawgpack.

A favorable opening weekend tournament draw means the Huskies have a chance to make a meaningful postseason run – provided they bring the same fire they have the last month. Both Marquette and potential second round opponent New Mexico are smaller, guard-oriented teams that like to shoot the three, and that plays to Washington's strengths.

The Huskies played themselves proud this season, overcoming a host of obstacles to emerge unified, battle-tested and motivated - much like their first-round opponent. And like Marquette, they've still got more to prove. Fortunately for them this season, that's when they shine the most.

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