After a grueling four-game road stretch, Washington (17-6, 8-3 Pac-10) returns home to face Oregon State (10-12, 4-7 Pac-10) Thursday night. Heading into the final seven games of the 2008-09 Pac-10 season, Beaver's head coach Craig Robinson is likely the coach of the year, while Oregon State has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season.
Although Washington hammered Oregon State on the road early in the season, Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar knows how dangerous the Beavers can be. They have won four of their last six Pac-10 games, including a sweep of the Bay Area teams in California.
"What you are looking at is a team with a whole new system being implemented and a new culture being implemented," explained Romar about Oregon State's turnaround. "It's not just the way the play basketball, but they way they do things both on and off the floor. As time goes on you can see that fruit ripening."
"I think they are a better team and a more dangerous team now, but lets make sure we understand they were a dangerous team then."
Washington knows a little something about being dangerous themselves having gone 15-3 in their last 18 games. A surprise to many, Washington enters tonight's game second in the Pac-10 only behind UCLA (19-4, 8-2 Pac-10). The Huskies record is impressive, but what is more impressive is how they've obtained it. Despite their record and success of late, Washington hasn't won a Pac-10 player of the week award. The Huskies instead have seen five different players score 20 points or more, and are content on being a winning team by winning as a team.
"Our scoring is spread out, our rebounding is spread out, everything is more on an even playing field," explained Jon Brockman. "Guys aren't expected to come out and have back-to-back 30-point scoring nights, or back-to-back ten-assist nights. That isn't something we need to be successful because everyone is doing their part."
Romar agrees, and also admits that when you look at the Husky lineup you might not see a bunch of NBA stars. But instead you see a deep team that understands how to play together.
"I think that with our team, we are very fortunate to be where we are, second in the conference, 17-6, and we haven't had one guy be player of the week," he explained. "I don't see us as this great team that is going to run through every one, but we have been a team and sometimes that can be even better."
"It's good and somewhat gratifying when you look at our team, you don't see seven lottery picks, Romar continued. "Tomorrow is a new day, but when you look at what we have done up to this point, it is very special because we don't have seven lottery picks, but we have been a team, and that has gotten us where we are at this point."
A big reason for Washington's ability to play team basketball is their depth. The Huskies currently have nine players averaging over 13.5 minutes, and many of whom can play multiple positions. Romar hopes that depth continues to give the Huskies an advantage, especially late in the season.
"It's huge because when you start looking at individual statistical leaders we don't have anyone in the top-ten in minutes played," said Romar. "That is due to two reasons. One is because of the pace we play and it is hard to play that way for 35 minutes. Second is our depth which allows us to rest guys. I think that has helped us in the second half of games and hopefully it helps us in the second half of Pac-10 play. I think out team should be relatively fresh."
One of the players greatly responsilble for Washington's depth is sophomore guard Venoy Overton. A starter all of last season, Overton has accepted his role coming off the bench and has provided the Huskies with a dimension most teams in the conference don't have.
"Everybody seems pretty humble," explained Overton. "It just shows how good of an overall team we are. Five people can get double figures and anybody can score 20 any night."
Washington's ability to share the scoring load has been welcomed by Brockman, who last season was asked to shoulder much of that responsibility.
"It makes it a whole lot easier and a whole lot more enjoyable because there is not the load on one individual," he explained. "Me personally, if I am not scoring, I always know there are four other guys capable of doing the same thing I can do."
"It is luck of the draw with our team because we have so many tremendous scorers," Quincy Pondexter added. "JD [Justin Dentmon] is a great scorer, Isaiah [Thomas] is a great scorer, Jon [Brockman] is an All-Americanm, so coming out and scoring is never the goal for any individual person. For us, it's all about getting the wins"
Currently Washington has 17 wins and the players know that with every new win they are getting that much closer to reaching their goal of the NCAA Tournament.
"Tournament time is coming around and we know everyone is excited," said Overton. "We look at the rankings everyday, but right now, we're not just focused on not only getting in the tournament but going deep."
Despite their success, Brockman knows there is enough season left that the first 17 wins could be meaningless if they don't take care of business.
"It is a within reach and we have put ourselves into a good position where we don't have to claw to get ourselves into that position," he explained. "But, there is enough time left in the season where we can still throw that all away."
A win tonight against Oregon State and another on Saturday against Oregon will set the stage for a big five-game finish. If the Huskies continue to play as a team, and can protect their home court the remainder of the season, a high NCAA Tournament seed should be awaiting them.