The potential of this Washington basketball team is no longer a Northwest secret. Four weeks ago pollsters left the Huskies on the outside looking in, with nothing more than a nose print on the window pane of the Top 25. With their best start in 30 years the Dawgs are nudging the top 10 again, yet a certain amount of anonymity remains. Much of the country could tell you who ISN"T playing for Washington, but seldom few can tell you which star is driving this year's model.
And that's the secret of the Huskies' success. Their identity doesn't revolve around one star. The one is their identity: one team. They have a standout talent in Brandon Roy, yet eight players have scored in double figures. Five players have led the team in rebounding and five players have posted game highs for assists.
What has emerged after eight games is a democratic personality. This squad is not of the stand-around-and-watch-Kobe-jack-another-shot variety. Balanced scoring has become their trademark. On five occasions, the Huskies have had five double-figure scorers. In the other three games, four Dawgs have gone double-digits. Even more than previous Lorenzo Romar teams, this one is discovering the joys of sharing.
"We're averaging more than 20 assists a game," said coach Romar, the UW point guard from 1978-80. "If you're getting that many assists, you're sharing the basketball. If you're averaging 90-plus points and no one is averaging over 16, you're sharing the basketball. I would like to think that the players that we have are unselfish."
With six players averaging over nine points a game - Roy (16.1), Jamaal Williams (14.9), Bobby Jones (13.1), Jon Brockman (12.3), Ryan Appleby (9.8), and Justin Dentmon (9.4), Romar has a plethora of weapons that is the envy of his coaching brethren. While the statistics are slightly bloated by some lopsided outcomes, the nature of the complementary pieces is undeniable. Even in a game with fewer possessions like New Mexico match-up, the opponent's dilemma was apparent.
"You could just see in that game, they decided they weren't going to give (Ryan) any open looks," Romar commented. "And as a result of that, I thought Jamaal Williams was able to have his way because they weren't doubling him. They were concerned about Ryan Appleby and maybe some of our other guys and it just opens it up. I think that is the advantage of having more than just one player that can produce for you. I think that's a good luxury to have.
"I think it's part of our philosophy. If you decide who you're going to take away, then the next guy is going to step up," said Romar.
Brockman, who has stepped in admirably on the blocks for the sidelined Mike Jensen, leads the team in rebounding, yet Williams, Jones, Roy and Artem Wallace have all had game-highs on the boards. Dentmon and Roy, the main distributors, lead the team in assists with 38 and 36, respectively, yet Williams, Joel Smith, and Brandon Burmeister have all put up game-highs in assists.
"Everyone gets involved and we're a team. We all play together," Romar emphasized.
Roy has led by example. While not posting the consistently gaudy scoring numbers that some anticipated at the season's outset, he has diligently found the open man, quick to give it up when defenses pay him too much attention.
"Brandon got me the ball when I was open down the stretch against New Mexico. I just knocked it down," said Hans Gasser, who earned his stripes as yet another dependable option. "They know I'll make it if I get (an open look). Everyone on the team is unselfish. It's just a matter of finding who's open for the big shot."
Not relying on one or two strengths will serve the team well as the competition stiffens and the mismatches aren't as numerous. Recognizing more subtle advantages and having the flexibility to exploit them will be crucial when the Pac-10 schedule begins in two weeks.
"I think our team is real good at finding the other team's weakness and going at it, or finding the hot hand and feeding it," said Gasser, who was rewarded with significant second-half minutes against the Lobos after scoring six consecutive points at a crucial juncture.
The junior from Issaquah was complimentary of Eastern Washington's Jake Beitinger, a summer league teammate, and Nick Livi, a rival from the old neighborhood. "They're a quality team and we'll have to continue to execute and read well if we're going to win."
"I think it's great in the fact that you don't know who's going to be the leading scorer any night," said Brockman, who displays a basketball savvy beyond his limited experience. "We really have six guys who can be the leading scorer that night. I think that's hard for teams to scout, just because they don't know because we don't know. In having so many different options of players you can go to on the offensive end, it really helps your team.
"Take the last game for instance, I wasn't playing well, but we found that Jamaal was playing really well. Everything was going in, so he was able to step up," Brockman continued. "I'm sure it will be reverse roles throughout the season where Bobby won't be playing as well, but Brandon will be able to step up. Brandon won't be playing as well, but Jamaal will step up again."
Jones believes the players have a better feel for their roles and their familiarity with each other. "As of right now, we know who the three-point shooters are, we know the ones who are creating for us, we know who's a nice mid-range shooter and our bigs. We know each other's comfort zones and where each player thrives at, where they can score at their best.
"As long as we understand that, anybody can be the leader scorer like it always has been the last two-three years. We're unselfish. If someone gets hot and our coaches know that, we've got plays designated for whomever. If they get hot at a certain point, we give them the ball and ride them out until somebody else gets hot," said Jones, who can join last year's teammates, Will Conroy and Nate Robinson, on the UW list of 1,000-point scorers with 12 points Friday versus EWU.
Romar is confident in all three of his seniors to come up big in the clutch, but that any number of guys have the wherewithal to hit a crucial basket. "Not only is (Roy) capable, but he has done that in the past in Pac-10 play. So we know he can do that and I think Jamaal has emerged to be that guy as well. You talk about balance, when we needed a bucket against Gonzaga, a freshman took over and made those buckets - Justin Dentmon. Maybe two of the bigger shots in that game when we needed buckets - Ryan Appleby hit a couple threes."
With play slowed to a half-court game versus New Mexico, the Huskies productive offense misfired for the first extended period this season. The Lobos defensive adjustments gave the Dawgs some problems to open the second-half, eroding a 17-point lead.
"We kind of lost our focus a little bit and then they went into the 1-3-1 zone, which kind of stumped us for a couple of minutes," Gasser said. "They started hitting in the second half and we didn't counter by making our shots, so they made a little run.
"Most of the teams that we play run a 2-3 or a pretty standard zone. The 1-3-1, not many teams run it like that. Arizona runs it a lot and it's unique because you don't practice against it as much. It was something we had to get used to and it took us some time to find the weak spots."
Eastern Washington may utilize a zone to counter the Huskies' quickness. "They are very good," said EWU coach Mike Burns. "They are ranked high and they've earned that ranking. Everybody that has been put in front of them, they've dispatched. It's a tremendous challenge for us and a great atmosphere. I know our guys will be excited about that game and it should be pretty fun."
Romar says the seniors have provided good leadership in getting the team emotionally focused for every game. "They've been around the block and they've been involved when maybe we have overlooked a team. But they've also been there when we haven't and I've thought in the past our guys did a good job of not doing that. They're just continuing to remind everyone of what's at stake, taking it one game at a time."
The unity through democracy approach has paid dividends for the Huskies so far. With balanced efforts up and down the roster, the team has been hard to topple. If their focus continues, it's hard to envision Washington falling in the final two non-conference games versus Eastern and Lehigh Dec. 23. With two more triumphs Washington will reach the 800 win mark at Edmundson Pavilion and enter conference play undefeated for the first time since 1980. Not bad for a team overlooked in the polls just a few weeks ago.