Who says a soft schedule can't prepare a tournament bound team? Critics across the country are pointing to Washington's 'far from challenging' schedule to credit their 29 home winning streak, the longest current home winning streak in the nation. According to Sports Illustrated, the Huskies managed to assemble the fifth easiest schedule for their 2005-06 season, only following behind 1) Louisville, 2) Mississippi State, 3) Pittsburgh, and 4) Syracuse.
A meeting with North Carolina in Seattle would have bumped Washington right off that list, had Bremerton native Marvin Williams decide to remain on the Tar Heels roster rather than forgoing his three years of eligibility to enter the draft. The possibility of this much anticipated ACC vs. PAC-10 match up, along with a 'home-coming' game, quickly receded like an extended sun break during a dreary Seattle winter soon after Williams' announcement.
In order to make up for this lost game, Washington staff saw the opportunity to host the Black Coaches Association Classic and jumped at the chance, hoping to gain the newbies some back-to-back game experience before conference play. In exchange for an intense match up against the defending national champions, the Huskies got; still winless Morgan State, Phoenix (of Wisconsin-Green Bay that is), and Mountain West Conference's own Air Force (two post-season appearances in 43 years).
"We didn't set out and say 'okay, let's make sure every game is at home, and let's make sure we don't play a team that's in the top 25.' We didn't set out to do that," defended head coach Lorenzo Romar. "But the way it ended up working out, I wouldn't change my schedule."
New comers and bench players can thank the schedule for their recent success and familiarity of expected roles. Obvious signs of toughness and development have blossomed within players such as Justin Dentmon, Ryan Appleby, and Jon Brockman since the first game of the season. Dentmon now has more control with the ball on the floor. He found the confidence to drive down the lane and split the defense for easy lay-ups as he did against New Mexico at the Wooden Classic. Appleby's fitting into his role of coming off the bench cold to knock down threes during crucial point of the game. Brockman has learned that he will have off days on the offensive end, but can make up for that by playing fearless defense and cleaning the glass. Romar praised the chance to patch holes within the team early in the season.
"We had wide margin of victory in a lot of those games and that has allowed us to play some guys that were able to gain valuable experience," said Romar. "Now as we get into conference, the guy gets in the game, his tail's not between his legs because he's played already. Last year, it was hard to get minutes for a couple of guys because a lot of the games were so close. But I think it's been beneficial to have had the schedule that we had."
During the smooth sail past their non-conference schedule, the Huskies had to overcome a substantial storm along the way, facing Gonzaga Bulldogs, then ranked sixth in the nation. Even with Adam Morrison's career high 43 points, the Dawgs managed to fight off the Zags with a balance attack, with five players scoring in double figures. Granted the Gonzaga lost guards Erroll Knight and Derek Raivio to injuries, in defense, Washington played without starter Mike Jensen and key bench player Harvey Perry.
Despite Washington's non conference schedule, winning put the Huskies at 11 on the AP Poll and 10 on the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Heading into this weekend's game against Eastern Washington, the Huskies are off to their best start in years. Senior captain Bobby Jones has a point to prove for those still doubting the Dawgs.
"At first people were saying we wouldn't be that good as we were last year. Now everyone sees one of the best starts we've had. We're exceeding all expectations right now, but we don't want to run into a wall and make a down fall. We've just got to stay humble, keep working hard and just take it one day at a time."
Bobby Jones sat out of practice on Tuesday due to an ankle injury suffered vs. New Mexico. "A little ankle bruise, not that bad. They just wanted me to take it slow." After the game, he was escorted out of the airport in a wheel chair. Lorenzo Romar noted the minor injury will not affect his minutes against Eastern Washington.
Jones is 12 points away from becoming the 30th Husky in history to reach 1,000 points.
Mike Jensen's injury status has not changed and Romar expects him back in time for Lehigh Dec. 23.