By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
During his regular, 30-minute session with the media Tuesday afternoon, University of Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar uttered a phrase that could be the slogan for the first half of the Huskies’ 2011-12 season.
“It could be a lot worse,” he said.
Case-in-point will be hosting Romar’s Huskies in Tempe, Ariz., tonight.
An Arizona State team that is just two seasons removed from a 25-win season and first-round win in the NCAA tournament bottomed out over the weekend with a 64-43 loss at Utah. That left the Sun Devils at 6-13 overall and 2-5 in conference play.
ASU’s best player, Trent Lockett, is currently hobbled by an ankle injury and is questionable for tonight’s game. The Sun Devils’ second-best player, sophomore Keala King, has been kicked off the team, while sophomore starter Kyle Cain also served a suspension. Only seven healthy scholarship players remain.
While ASU has sunk to new depths, the Sun Devils don’t have to look far to find company in their misery. Just about every team in the Pac-12 has depth problems and injury concerns — and the Huskies, despite their 5-2 start in conference play, are no different.
“There are more teams than usual that are missing some of their key players,” Romar said Tuesday of the conference’s tough-luck season. “Before the season even started, there were players who transferred, some who are out for the year. So (this season) is different that way.”
Eight of the conference’s top 15 underclassmen scorers from last season are gone, due to early NBA entry (the top four scorers, all of whom had at least one year of eligibility remaining) and suspension (UCLA’s Reeves Nelson, who was kicked off the team).
Budding stars like Lockett and UW’s C.J. Wilcox have been injured. ASU’s King and Utah’s Josh Watkins, the Utes’ leading scorer, have been kicked off their respective teams. Cal’s Richard Solomon has academic issues. And several promising young players like Oregon’s Jabari Brown, Arizona’s Sidiki Johnson and UCLA’s De’End Parker have decided to transfer.
It’s been a league-wide epidemic, and one that Romar can’t easily explain.
“Life,” he said with a shrug. “Every now and then, things like that happen. If this were to go on three or four years in a row, then (it’s time to ask): ‘What’s going on?’ But it’s just one of those years.”
The injuries, defections and suspensions have left teams like ASU, Utah and USC as low as they’ve been in years. But some of those same factors have worked in favor of teams like UW, Oregon and Colorado, which have stayed afloat in a shallow pool of contenders.
The Huskies (12-7 overall, 5-2 in the Pac-12) appeared dead in the water a few weeks ago but now find that overlooking an opponent is a primary concern heading into tonight’s game. A spate of home games have helped UW get off to a fast start in conference play, leaving the Huskies in the thick of a crowded race atop the Pac-12 standings as they prepare to play eight of their final 12 games away from home.
Despite Thomas’s early departure, the injuries to Suggs and Wilcox, and a frontcourt that lacks primary scorers, the Huskies have found ways to win. Only six players deep — seven, if football player Austin Seferian-Jenkins becomes a regular part of the rotation — UW has spent recent first halves playing primarily zone defense to help save legs. The Huskies have had to rely on huge second halves from Terrence Ross (18.3 points per 20 minutes after halftime over the past three games) and has had to use bigger lineups with forward Desmond Simmons on the wing and the 6-foot-6 Ross at guard at times.
So far, the adjustments have been working, as UW has scraped out five wins in seven conference games.
“The fact that we were still able to go 2-1 without C.J.,” Romar said, “I feel like we’ve dodged a bullet.”
The key now is to stay on track, and beating a short-handed ASU team would be a good start. Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek said his team might be without Lockett again, leaving 6-6 wing Carrick Felix, at 10.7 points per game, as the only double-figure scorer on the team.
When Romar was asked what challenges the Sun Devils could pose, he gave a familiar answer.
“We’re on the road,” he said, referring to his team’s 1-5 mark away from Hec Edmundson Pavilion this season. “It’s always dangerous on the road. We have to prepare with that mindset. We’re going on the road, and we have to be at our best.”
Of course, there’s one other potential obstacle that could trip up the Huskies tonight.
“We can’t take them lightly,” freshman guard Tony Wroten Jr. said. “They’re going to give us their best game.”
Wilcox (stress fracture) and Seferian-Jenkins (illness) are likely to be game-time decisions. … The Huskies haven’t pulled a road sweep against the Arizona schools since Feb. 2004.