Pondexter playing in rarified air

SEATTLE - Quincy Pondexter thought it was going to be so easy. After all, he had just seen the blueprint for college success laid down by Washington's Brandon Roy and others while he was biding his time at Fresno's San Joaquin Memorial High School. While UW was coming up trumps with three NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet 16's back-to-back, Pondexter knew it was all in front of him.

There was no chance it wouldn't happen. And then it didn't.

"Coming in from high school, I thought it was going to be really easy to duplicate what Brandon Roy did," Pondexter said Monday as the Huskies get ready to face the West Virginia Mountaineers in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 game Thursday in Syracuse. "For you to actually earn it and be on this stage, there's no better feeling than that."

And Pondexter, along with his head coach, Lorenzo Romar, truly have come full circle - not only with this season, but also in Pondexter's UW career. He came to Montlake as a top-30 prospect nationally, and early on he lived up to every bit of the hype. He averaged 15 points during the non-conference part of his true freshman campaign.

"As people start to hear more and more about him, they are like 'That's right. Quincy Pondexter...that's right!'" remarked Romar Monday, adding that Pondexter's UW career started out with a much bigger bang than Roy's did. But at some point it leveled off. Something happened, and Pondexter's plateau mirrored that of his team; for his first two years their only sniff at the post-season was a half-hearted attempt at the CBI, a loss to Valparaiso at Bank of America Arena that the Huskies would rather forget.

While Romar never panicked, there was a voice in the back of his head telling him something.

"The day I retire from coaching, or they retire me, and if I never experience as a head coach an opportunity to go to a Final Four or win a national championship, that (2006 Sweet 16) UCONN game will always haunt me," he said. "Because I remember how close it was. We didn't get it done. If we would have won that game…every year you have teams that make it to the Elite Eight and they are telling their teams, 'One more! We're 40 minutes away!' But in our case we were going to play a team in George Mason, who made it to the Final Four and was overlooked by a lot of teams that year. And that's not to discredit George Mason at all, because they were an outstanding team. But there is no way we would have overlooked George Mason. Because we felt that we were the underdogs that year.

"That was our chance. And I know that there are many time…when we were sitting in that locker room that night after the game, I thought to myself I hope we have a chance to get back here again because many others have been in this position and never made it back.

"We just lost when we played Louisville (in the 2005 Sweet 16); the UCONN game was ours."

Last season, the Huskies rode their veterans - Pondexter and senior forward Jon Brockman - to an outright Pac-10 championship, as well as to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Portland. They fell to Purdue by two points, an agonizing loss especially for Brockman, who had played in the 2006 UCONN game as a true freshman. He had tasted the sweetness despite, being big underdogs, and longed for another bite.

Pondexter had one more year to make good, and he has. It hasn't been easy, as these heart-attack Huskies have had to battle back from 3-5 in conference to win the Pac-10 Tournament and their first two games of the NCAA Tournament. In some ways, the 2010 campaign has been a combination of 2004 and 2006. "We had to win every game, in our minds (in 2004), to have a chance make the NCAA Tournament," Romar said. "Up until last weekend, it was more that way. Now since we have won the Pac-10 championship and are in the Sweet 16, it has changed face a little bit (to 2006)."

And now, as the Huskies ready themselves to take on a West Virginia team every bit the equal of that 2006 Connecticut team that featured Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong and others, they have a chance to put themselves on a pedestal that no other UW team has been on since 1953 - an Elite Eight stairstep heading straight to Indianapolis.

"You're one weekend away from the Final Four," Romar said, matter-of-factly.

Pondexter appears poised for the challenge. He nailed a runner off glass with 1.7 left after a clear-out gave him a chance to ruin Marquette's own aspirations. And he's ready again, if need be. "Being a senior, it's something you dream of," he said. "And being a leader, you have to live with taking those shots, whether it goes in or doesn't. You have to deal with the pressure. And I feel like I'm that guy to live with that pressure. If our team is not playing well, I shoulder all the burden for that and say it's my fault. If our team is playing well - it's a team game. It's all theirs. I'm just in a real good position where I want to take all the pressure away from this team."

The speed bumps in Pondexter's way have been just that - bumps. And now that he's been through the ups and downs, the highs and lows that only a career at the highest levels of college athletics can give you, he's very prepared to take on that next bump in the road. And while he's on track to possibly surpass Brockman on the all-time UW scoring list (he needs 27 points), the man they call 'Q-Pon' knows he can't go far on individual glory.

"As long as our team wins, that's all I care about," he said. "Our team has found their niche in every way. Everyone is playing their role perfectly. We're really cohesive right now. "We had to go out and get the work done. And that's ultimately helped us play better basketball."

So let's go through the Husky Basketball checklist: Play Defense? Check. Rebound the Basketball? Check. Share the Ball? Check. They are clicking like no UW team has in a few years, and when you're playing this well the last thing you want to do is stop.

"The only thing (Romar's) told us is that it gets more fun each and every week you're in this thing," Pondexter said of the team's current NCAA run. "I think that's something that has really motivated us to continue to play in this tournament and see how far we can possibly go. From the media standpoint, from the rankings standpoint - we will be underdogs. West Virginia has proven a lot this season and have a lot better record than we do. But it's the NCAA Tournament, so all that goes out the window. We just have to come out and play basketball."

"Whenever you are able to be successful and you experience some type of championship success, you are excited for the time being, but there comes a point when you want to get back," added Romar. "And I think we're pretty hungry."
Notes:
Romar is familiar with Bob Huggins: Both Lorenzo Romar and West Virginia Head Coach Bob Huggins know each other well. Romar ran with the team and became close to the Bearcats because he was with Athletes in Action in the early 1990's, which is located in Cincinnati. Romar also got his degree from the University of Cincinnati around the same time, and watched UC get to the Final Four in 1992. "I got real close to their program and have known coach Huggins ever since. It was a pleasure watching someone organize a championship program," he said. Romar also coached against Huggins and the Bearcats when he was Saint Louis. "We slipped up and beat 'em," he added. "They beat us more than we beat them, though."

So are the Mountaineers similar to the Huggins' teams Romar remembers at UC? "They are similar to a lot of their teams," he said. "I think their team with Kenyon Martin was the best team I've seen them have. The teams with Nick Van Exel and Corey Blount and those guys were outstanding teams also. But in terms of what they are doing and their makeup, their toughness - all that stuff…it's still there."

Defending the Pac-10: Romar was asked about the national perception shrouding the Pac-10, and if he wanted to defend the conference. He said that there were some early non-conference losses that added to a diminished reputation for the league. The Pac-10 has also lost 21 players to the NBA in the past two years. "The league was young, and as the league went on, the teams started to mature more, the young players started to mature more," he added. "But because of those out-of-conference losses, the league attained a label that it was down, and that label was never lifted. It was as if people quit watching the Pac-10 because they had already made an assumption as to where the league was. But I do think the league was better than was given credit for."

Facing WVU like USC?: Some have suggested that West Virginia is very similar to USC in terms of their size and athleticism, but Romar said Monday that the Mountaineers will present problems to UW that they haven't seen this year. "The combination of their length, athleticism, toughness and discipline on the defensive end is not something we've seen this year," he said. "You watch their guys - they are fundamentally sound defensively. They don't make very many mistakes defensively. That's why you have to run a very good offense against them or you'll have a tough time scoring.

"Defensively, SC packed it in and just motioned for you to come in. I think West Virginia is more tenacious. They have more of a defensive presence than USC did. And it was difficult for us to score against USC. But it appears that West Virginia is more aggressive in coming after you."

Pondexter knows Da'Sean Butler: As with Marquette's Lazar Hayward, UW's Quincy Pondexter played this past summer with West Virginia's leading scorer, Da'Sean Butler, as part of the World University Games team that won a bronze medal in Serbia. "He's a great person," he said of Butler. "We stayed in the same room in Serbia. He's such a funny guy. He's a good person on and off the floor. He's done great things for that team. He's so talented and he's hit some big shots for them. He's a real leader. I've been watching all his games and I've been really impressed with him."

Shooting the lights out: Romar was asked about the Huskies' shooting, especially during tournament play. During the course of the year, UW has shot .455 overall, and .338 from 3-point range, but those totals have improved to .539 and .409 respectively during their current nine-game winning streak, and .515 and .557 in their two tournament games. "I think everyone is a lot more familiar with their roles and where their shots are coming from within what we're doing, so obviously guys are a little more relaxed," he said. "Because we've shortened the rotation, guys understand more when they are getting in the game. When you are shooting, you can't have a lot of distractions, and I think that's eliminated some of the distractions. Guys have also put more time in shooting. Coach (Jim) Shaw has been getting guys to stay after practice, and they are shooting extra shots. They are putting the time in, and I think over a period of time that work has paid off."

Romar hoping for fan support: Romar remarked Monday how great it was to have so much fan support with the team when they were in San Jose. In fact, he said it felt the same as it did when the team played their two tournament games last year in Portland - a much easier place to travel to.

"It was no different in San Jose," he said. "We go out there and there's purple everywhere. When we were coming back from 15 down against Marquette, that place was loud. The Dawgpack may have well been there in numbers, and I know some of them were there. They really helped us. They helped fuel our comeback. They were there against New Mexico. It was great. I know our guys appreciated it.

"If we go out to the Carrier Dome and see a bunch of purple and be able to hear them like that? It would be a tremendous lift, because at this point with it being so far, we don't know if it's going to happen or not. But it would be a great lift."

He also added that he'd love to get all the support of all the Cornell fans that will surely be making the approximately 80-minute drive to Syracuse from Ithaca, NY.


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