With the first road game and its ensuing reality check behind the team, the hardwood Huskies return to Hec Ed for a three-game home stand. Many figure Saturday's match up with Portland State to be a tune-up for No. 12 LSU next week, but one should not sell the Vikings short.
Having fallen four places to No. 17 in the AP Top 25 after last weekend's drubbing at the hands of cross-state rival Gonzaga, coach Lorenzo Romar's 7-1 Washington team has seen a quiet finals week around Montlake as they work to answer the question: was this young team getting beat by 20 points a good thing that will precipitate growth or brutal setback?
"Practices have been intense—we can't afford to make mistakes in games," said guard Justin Dentmon referring to the team's culpabilities regarding defense and shot selection and his own forgettable performance in the loss. "We have to key and focus on trusting each other [on defense]. Last year's team didn't take possessions off. We're still trying to find out who our leaders are."
Forward Jon Brockman, who put together a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) against Gonzaga, summed up a barrage of questions and a week of practice with the promise that "when we face that again, we'll know what to do."
"We're all learning," said Romar, who received news that USA Basketball had named him co-developmental coach of the year along with DePaul's Doug Bruno for their respective gold-medal showings with under-18 teams at the 2006 FIBA Americas U18 Championships last summer. He likened the USA Basketball work to some of the challenges that his freshman-heavy Huskies face, stating that the team's everyday focus is to "keep getting better and do things right."
Portland State, meanwhile, has started 7-3—the program's best 10-game record in eight years—with Big Sky conference play yet to begin. Included, in that record, is a November 18 road win at Arizona State.
And two particular areas that dogged the Dawgs in the blowout loss to Gonzaga, field goal percentage and turnover margin, happen to be specialties of the Vikings: Portland State ranks second among Big Sky teams in both field goal percentage defense (44.1% allowed—the Huskies shot 43.1% against the Zags) and turnover margin (+2.6), seeing 19.8 takeaways per game.
Much like the up-tempo Huskies, the Vikings live and die by the shot, shooting 49% and averaging 82.7 points in its seven wins, compared to 34.1% and 61.3 points in the three losses.
Spencer Hawes, who continues to play better and better and overcame some early turnovers to emerge as one of the Dawgs' few bright spots against Gonzaga (20 points, six rebounds), will draw the assignment of containing the Vikings' standout center, 6-foot-11 Scott Morrison, from Vancouver, Canada. This season, Morrison has averaged15 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game; converting an impressive 67.5% of his field goals (Morrison's 57.6% free throw mark is somewhat less inspiring). His field goal percent and blocks averages lead the conference, and he has blocked four shots in a game three times already this season.
Three other Vikings—forward Juma Kamara and guards Dupree Lucas and Deonte Huff—also average double figures in scoring.
Storylines come with the presence of Portland State head coach Ken Bone and assistant Curtis Allen. Bone, 19-19 thus far at Portland State in his second year, previously served as an assistant for Romar's first three Washington teams (2003-05). A 1983 graduate of Seattle Pacific University, he coached there from 1990-2002, compiling an impressive 253-97 record while leading the Falcons to six conference championships and eight NCAA Division-II tournament appearances.
Allen, of course, completed a four-year letterman tenure for the Huskies from 2001-04—the end of his playing career overlapping with Bone's time as an assistant—and still claims the school's career free throw percentage record at 86.7%. He also ranks tenth all-time among Husky career assist leaders with 286.
Interestingly, very few current players coincide with Allen and Bone at Washington, providing yet another reminder of just how green the team is in places.
Romar, who does not particularly enjoy competing against friends and former colleagues, projected that Bone's familiarity with Washington will help Portland State more than Romar's knowledge of Bone, helps the Huskies. A Ken Bone-coached team is "very sound," Romar said, disclosing the respect that Bone commands in the coaching community.
"You better beat them, because they're not going to give it to you."