Two seasons without an NCAA Tournament invite after back-to-back sweet sixteen appearances was a surprise. A first round exit of the newly formed College Basketball Invitational at the hands of Valparaiso was a shocker. This year the Washington Huskies hope to surprise the Pac-10 and perhaps shock the country by regaining their sweet sixteen form.
"We want to get back to the tourney – but really we just want to make a name again for Washington basketball," explained senior forward Jon Brockman. "If we repeat what we have done the past two years and when we leave this place we'll be talked about as the down years of Husky basketball. That kills me to think about, but we have an opportunity to pull ourselves out of this and get back on track. This team is more than capable of doing that and we have high expectations for us and the pieces of the puzzle to realize those expectations."
Brockman along with point guard Justin Dentmon and forward Artem Wallace are the lone seniors on a new look Husky team that is built to run the floor much like the tournament teams led by Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson and Will Conroy did.
"We have a lot of similarities [with the teams that made back-to-back sweet-16 appearances]. The biggest similarity is that we have enough leaders returning to carry the load," said Brockman. "At the same time we have younger guys capable of chipping in and helping us without having to carry the load. When Spencer [Hawes] came in two years ago there were a lot of expectations placed on his back and everyone thought he would be the one to put all of the pressure on. That is a lot to ask of a true freshman and I'm not saying our guys are not capable of it, but it is just a very tough thing to do. We have enough older guys with experience they can carry the load while the talented young guys will be icing on the cake."
The three seniors should know first hand how important freshman can be in a post-season run. Brockman (8.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Dentmon (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Wallace (2.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg) all contributed as freshman during the 2005-06 season – the last time Washington was in the NCAA Tournament. Brockman and Dentmon both admitted the 2005-06 season seems like only yesterday, as neither were prepared for the reality of their final season; their final chance to get things right. However, now that it's here, don't think they are going to let the opportunity pass them by.
"It changes everything," explained Dentmon about his final year in College. "It's llike a person who just found out he's going to die in a few weeks – you want to accomplish everything you haven't yet. That is the way I feel and I want to make the best of my college career."
Brockman agrees and uses the realization to motivate him even more – a scary though for Pac-10 defenders.
"It makes things a little more real. You open your eyes and think this is the last time I'm going to be doing this – it's the last time I'm going to be here and doing that. It gives you a different perspective – a perspective you wish you had as sophomore and junior because it goes by so fast. Since realizing that myself, I'm trying to get that point across to the young guys, that it feels like your going to be here forever but it goes by fast. Every single year seems to go by quicker then the last. That has motivated me as far as working hard and the approach you take to the season. It opens your eyes a little bit and you think I should do two extra sets, run two more lines, because you won't be in this position very long."
Make no mistake, the goal for this Husky team is not only to win, but to dominate. They know the talent is there. They know the pieces are in place to run Romar's fast paced offense. They also know talent like Brockman's shouldn't be wasted. The bar has been set high for the 2008-09 season and there is no reason to think they can't reach it.
"The first goal is a 20 win season," said Dentmon. "Then you have a chance to get a Pac-10 championship and if you do that you will be in the [NCAA] tournament. We also have little goals to be a better defensive team, be a better free-throw shooting team, be the best rebounding team in the Pac-10, and not to turn the ball over as much. We just have to work towards all of those goals during the off-season."
A big reason to expect progress from last season is a crop of extremely talented freshman. One of those players is former Curtis High School standout Isaiah Thomas. Thomas is an exceptional scorer with the confidence, swagger and not to mention jump shot to make an immediate impact in the Pac-10. Even though Brockman warned of not putting too much pressure on freshman – he acknowledges Thomas is not your average freshman.
"He is unbelievable and people are going to be amazed by his passing and his court vision," explained Brockman. "He's not like a normal freshman – but I don't think it's fair to expect him to come in and average 30 points – but he is a very good player and he will be fun to watch. I think the thing we will get the most out of him this year is that he has a bit of an attitude. He doesn't take anything from anyone and when he hits the court he will battle anyone in front of him. He will put some people in the seats and they will enjoy seeing him perform on the court."
Thomas' fire, passion and love for the game should go nicely with another emotional player; sophomore point guard Venoy Overton. Overton, also a local standout from Franklin High School, plays with his heart on his sleeve. He uses that passion to make him the player he is.
"I said a couple of weeks ago that at times we are going to have to turn those two fire crackers [Thomas, Overton] down," said Brockman. "But there will be times we will just unleash them on the court and let them have at it. It will help us because I think our entire team needs to have a chip on their shoulder this year and make sure our opponents feel us for 40 minutes. We are going to be felt this year."
Thomas will indeed be felt, especially by opposing defenses. The 5-foot-8 combo guard has everything you ask for out of a playmaker and he relishes in the opportunity to bring his hometown team back to glory.
"It means a lot to play at home in front of family and friends," said Thomas. "I'm going to do everything it takes to win. That is all I want to do – win and get us back to how it was a few years ago. I had a long talk with coach Romar the other day and we talked about getting this back to how it used to be. We want to be up-tempo and run the floor and play in your face defense. That is my style of play and I can't wait for the first practice and the first game. We understand it all starts with defense. We need to get in people's faces and I want to do that. I want to bring a swagger back to this program and help them win. With Dentmon, Venoy and myself it doesn't matter if I play the one or the two. I like the ball in my hands but if not when I get it I can shoot it - so it's all good."
Husky fans hope it is in fact "all good" when the Husky B-Ball team tips it off for the first time in 2008-09. One thing is certain – they will be exciting to watch.