Huskies have makings for special season

Even though Lorenzo Romar is well versed in the anticipation that comes with starting a college basketball season, the feeling this time of year is always the same.
"We've said this on many preliminary occasions but the season really is here now," said Romar, who's entering his ninth season with the University of Washington's men's basketball team. "It's not, 'Practice is about to begin,' or exhibition games. We're about to play our opener. I think going into that game, I'll feel a little like when you're taking that exam right before they hand you the test. You're wondering, 'Did I study enough?' I just hope we're ready to go for that opener."
The Huskies' opener at home against McNeese State Saturday will give folks their first real look at Washington team that is the preseason favorite to win the Pacific-10 Conference.
That is new territory for the 18th-ranked Huskies, who've been to the NCAA Tournament five times since 2004 under Romar but have never had that conference favorite tag coming into a season.
But the 2010-11 version of the Huskies is loaded with experience and exceptional shooters and, according to Romar, is the most athletic group he's had at Washington.
Throw in a 7-foot new addition at center and a nationally-recruited freshman guard that Romar says might be the most talented player on the team and it's easy to understand why expectations are high for the Huskies.
Washington returns four starters and nine players overall from a team that rode its trademark defense to win the Pac-10 Tournament and reach the Sweet 16 last winter.
"When people put predictions out there and they put us on top, that puts targets on our back," sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy said. "We know we're going to get everyone's 'A' game every night."
The Huskies don't lack in confidence.
Leading the swagger is junior guard Isaiah Thomas, who along with point guards Venoy Overton and Gaddy, make up one of the conference's most potent backcourts.
Romar said this is one season when the starting five is more about matchups rather than talent: Whether the Huskies want to go big or small to start the game.
The Huskies know their biggest challenge will be to make up for the void in rebounding, scoring and leadership left by Quincy Pondexter, who led Washington in scoring (19.3 points per game) and rebounding (7.4) last season.
Romar is happy with the leadership he's seeing from his veteran players this season and isn't worried about making up any scoring.
But the biggest mystery about this season's Huskies is whether they will be able to rebound, which was revealed in their exhibition against Saint Martin's when the Saints outrebounded Washington, 42-32, in the UW's 97-76 victory.
The addition of 7-foot sophomore Aziz N'Diaye is expected to help in that area as well as give the Huskies an intimidating shot-blocking presence. That is, if N'Diaye can stay on the court. He picked up five fouls in 11 minutes against Saint Martin's.
"We've got to do a better job on the boards," Romar said. "I think that's the biggest concern right now."
Romar doesn't see one dominating rebounder on this team. Rather, he sees it being done as a collective effort.
"Rebounding is mostly about desire," Romar said.
He knows he'll need that sort of effort from an entire group, including returning starting forwards Matthew Bryan-Amaning (6-foot-9) and Justin Holiday (6-6), who are both seniors.
"We don't want to get outrebounded every game," Gaddy said. "That usually ends in losses."
Scoring will not be an issue.
Thomas, the former Curtis High School star, averaged 16.9 points per game last season. Gaddy, out of Bellarmine Prep, averaged only 3.9 points last season but worked with Thomas over the summer in Tacoma to improve his shooting.
The Huskies have raved about the shooting ability of redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox and Romar is wowed by the talent and enormous potential of 6-6 true freshman guard Terrence Ross once he learns the system.
Another key player for the Huskies this season is Overton, a tenacious defender who averaged 8.5 points per game last season. Overton, a senior, has been slowed at practice by a hamstring injury but is expected to be back on the court for McNeese State.
The Huskies blossomed late last season on their way to the Sweet 16. Thomas said he sees some parallels this season but expects the Huskies to be stronger earlier.
He said when players such as N'Diaye, Ross and Wilcox get more court time, he expects the team to take off.
All three of those players didn't play basketball last season.
N'Diaye, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and missed last season. Wilcox sat out last season while redshirting. Ross didn't play his senior year after transferring to Jefferson High School in Portland during the school year.
"Those guys are really key to what we're trying to do," Thomas said. "Once they get a hold of things and understand what we want them to do, then that's when it's easier for us all to gel."