Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby were unknown quantities at the top of the season. One was questioned for his shooting range, the other for his ball-handling. With increasing poise over the last month they have added to Washington's quantity of wins—eight straight—and are now well-known. Dentmon joined Jon Brockman on the Pac-10 All-Freshman team while Appleby, the local son who transferred back from Florida, was named the conference Newcomer of the Year. They have solidified a backcourt featuring the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Brandon Roy.
The backcourt neophytes shined last Saturday as Washington pulled out just its third victory in the last 22 meetings at Arizona. Appleby, the sophomore from Stanwood, delivered on 4 of 5 attempts from 3-point range to finish as the Huskies' second leading scorer with 14 points. Dentmon, the native of Carbondale, Ill., who finished his prep career at The Winchendon (Mass.) School, swung the balance of the game with two critical steals in the last two minutes and two free throws in the final nine seconds. The freshman point guard also hit 3 of 6 from the arc, his best perimeter shooting game of the season, for 13 points.
As impressive as the individual honors are, the most telling indication of this team's strength lies in the fact that six players in all received some sort of accolade. Senior forwards Bobby Jones, the Pac-10 Player of the Week (Jan. 16), and Jamaal Williams, the Wooden Classic Player of the Game (Dec. 10), both received honorable mention on the All-Pac-10 squad. No other conference team had more than four players honored. Washington was the only school with two players named to the five man All-Freshman team, which is all the more significant considering that UW commit Martell Webster jumped directly to the NBA.
"When you talk about the six (players), that's really exciting to me," said coach Lorenzo Romar. "We place a big emphasis on team. It's amazing what happens when no one cares who gets the credit."
Like earning a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, the latest recognition is a sign that the program has come of age. After some struggles in the first half of the season, Dentmon and Appleby have done the same. Following several shaky Pac-10 road games, the 20-year old point guard overcame the mental mistake at Stanford to break the 19-year old UW freshman assist record with 112. With an average of 3.86 assists per contest, Dentmon ranks first amongst freshmen and seventh in the conference overall. Having iced several games at the line, the soft-spoken newbie is third in Pac-10 free throw percentage (.833) and leads the team with 43 steals, sixth in the conference.
Dentmon, a self-described poet from a challenging childhood, emerged from the limited minutes at UCLA and California to finish second on the team with more than 27 minutes per game. In the second half of the conference slate, he has scored in double figures five times for a season average of 8.1. He led the team in assist in 14 games, finishing the regular season just eight assists behind Roy.
"It's a big accomplishment to prove everybody wrong," Dentmon said of the all-frosh accolade. "(Some people said) I was going to come in and only play 12-15 minutes, which wasn't my intention. I just came in with a chip on my shoulder, knowing that there were people in front of me that I needed to pass. What I showed was a lot of hard work and it paid off."
The first UW winner in the fourteen-year history of the Newcomer award since Doug Wrenn traded a UConn Husky jersey for the purple and gold, Appleby has been dropping long-distance daggers on opponents all season. In November, he hit six 3-balls in the 47-point blowout of Loyola Marymount, which took Gonzaga to the wire for the West Coast Conference Tournament championship. He knocked down three triples in the second half comeback at Pauley Pavilion and hit 5 of 6 in the rally at Cal.
While the Newcomer award is voted on by the Pac-10 radio announcers, Appleby's threes have also earned him the respect of his peers. In an anonymous poll of Pac-10 players released in last week's Sports Illustrated, the mop-topped guard was voted the best shooter in the conference. During the eight-game winning streak, the quick-draw marksman has hit 20 of 39 shots from the arc (.512). Even more staggering are his results in the last five games, as he's been accurate with 14 of 22 bombs (.636).
"Even though Ryan Appleby had big games early against Arizona and Gonzaga and Loyola, I think you have seen that he has been more consistent now," said Romar. "He put together back-to-back double-digit games here in Arizona.
"With the lineup change, we now have two scorers coming off the bench. Whereas, earlier in the year sometimes Ryan was more just the shooter, but now he's become more of a scorer along with Jamaal."
For the season, Appleby is third in the conference in 3-point percentage (.433) and fourth in 3-pointers made (2.24 per game). After playing only an average of eight minutes per game in his freshman year at Florida, he is showing more of a knack for finding seams and converting drives. And he has committed just seven turnovers in the last eight games.
Romar thinks the layoff in his redshirt year didn't hurt his stroke, but was apparent elsewhere. "I think all that time other parts of his game were a little rusty. Now I think what we've been seeing is Ryan Appleby becoming a more complete player," said Romar, who has long believed that transfers don't find their stride until the second half of the season. "In the first area, he's become a better defender than he was in the beginning. He works so hard out on the floor, I think that's very evident. And I think his ball-handling with pressure has become better."
When it comes to making good decisions with the basketball, few players rank with Brandon Roy. The league-leader in assist/turnover ratio (1.82), Roy accomplished the rare combination of finishing second in conference scoring (19.6 to Leon Powe's 20.0) and fourth in assists (4.1 apg). His FG percentage of .509, fourth best in the conference, is impressive for a guard who also took 59 3-pointers in Pac-10 play (.424). Arguably the most complete player in the entire country, the hometown hero is also 11th in rebounding (5.8 rpg), fifth in FT percentage (.819), eighth in steals (1.34), and 10th in blocked shots (0.83).
Roy admitted that the three-game skid culminating with the loss at Pullman motivated him to find an even higher gear. Not only did the sour stretch bring renewed focus to the team, its leader knew it was time for a statement.
"That was the first time I thought the goal (of winning player of the year) was realistic because now people were watching, watching how the Huskies were going to respond to adversity," said the senior co-captain. "I think we did a great job as a team."
Jon Brockman, whose rebounding prowess was a given at the beginning of the season, said Roy's contribution can't be measured by numbers alone. "His leadership—that doesn't show in statistics. When we lost those three in a row, he pulled us out of it, put us on his shoulders and carried us out of it," said the Snohomish standout.
Brockman became just the second Husky freshman to record 200 rebounds in a season. The bruiser is fourth in Pac-10 rebounding (6.9 rpg) and second in FG percentage (.524), while his scoring average (9.0) is fourth on the team. In his collegiate debut, he won the MVP of the BCA Classic and proceeded to lead the Huskies in rebounding 11 times. His inside muscle is one of the big differences in this year's squad.
As the Huskies prepare for the Pac-10 Tournament, the good news seems to be arriving daily. In the early releases, Roy has been named first-team All-America by the likes of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, Scout.com, and ESPN. In addition to ranking in the conference's top 10 in 10 of 13 categories and setting a school record for nine consecutive games scoring 20 or more points, Roy is a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden Awards. Roy and the rest of the band of renown will defend their Pac-10 Tourney title starting Thursday night.
"A lot of teams have been forcing us to make outside shots. They're not allowing a whole lot of penetration and they've been playing off some guys," said Appleby, citing improved spacing in the late-season 3-ball success. "So guys have had to show other parts of their game and knock down some open shots. We've had a number of guys step up.
"I think this winning steak has been the biggest thing we've done all year," said the sharpshooter. "Everybody's been clicking on all cylinders. Everybody has been coming in and playing their role. I think defenses are seeing now that they just can't stop Brandon to beat us."
Dentmon has become another one of those weapons. The coach had a good deal of praise for the goat of the Stanford loss.
"He's been able to get valuable on-the-job training. He has made big plays to enable us to win ballgames," said Romar. "He's done a tremendous job.
"He's extremely coachable and always has a smile on his face. Even as a freshman, he makes our guys laugh all the time. He's been through a lot in his life, but you wouldn't know it because he has such a great outlook."
The coach then shared a story about how assistant coach Jim Shaw found Dentmon shooting alone in the IMA last summer after his teammates had completed their lifting. Shaw reminded him that they had a day off from practice. The southern Illinois native replied, "I didn't come this far to take days off."