Fans have come to know what to expect the past two years from the University of Washington men’s basketball team.
Will Conroy always seeming to pass to the right player.
Nate Robinson doing something to make you say, “Wow.”
Bobby Jones locking up the opponent’s best scorer.
Jamaal Williams finding a way to score over a much taller opponent.
Brandon Roy doing, well, pretty much anything he wanted.
It was an era of stability and success that Washington basketball had never seen. But now after back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16, that era of Husky hoops is over, and the “What’s Next?” era is ready to start.
With a team made up primarily of sophomores and freshmen, the Huskies hope to take the next step behind the play of two-straight top recruiting classes and make a legitimate run at the Final Four and a national title.
“Every year is a different challenge,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, now in his fifth season.
“The first year was, ‘Can we win a game?’ The second year was, ‘Can we make the next step, get to an NCAA Tournament?’ Then it was, ‘Can we get further?’ Now it’s, ‘Can we do it again?’ This year, it’s a new era, a changing of the guard, so to speak. Now, can this group duplicate and maybe even surpass what the other group did? That’s a fun challenge to go after.”
The challenge facing this young group of Huskies is unlike any that has been faced at the UW. The group that preceded this one came into a situation where Washington basketball was an afterthought at best. Now, it’s considered one of the top programs on the West coast and the new players were among the top recruits in the nation.
There will be no sneaking up on anyone anymore.
“It’s definitely different,” said sophomore forward Jon Brockman, who takes over from Roy and Jones as the UW captain. “Everyone knows about Washington basketball now, and that’s because of the guys who came before us. We have a responsibility to continue what those guys put in place.”
If the young players – including the outstanding freshman class of Spencer Hawes, Quincy Pondexter, Adrian Oliver and Phil Nelson – weren’t aware of the responsibility they’ve inherited, the former Huskies made them aware of it this summer.
Playing in open gyms, guys like Robinson, Conroy and Roy were consistently in the ears of the incoming players, letting them know exactly what they expect from them.
“They kept telling me that our freshmen class better do good because they don’t want to see this program slip from what they built for us,” Oliver said. “We owe those guys everything. They built this program to what it is today. I respect every one of those guys for that. We’ve got to do it for this town, this city, but also for the guys who have moved on.”
“Those guys are one of the big reasons I think we’re here,” Hawes said. “Everyone wants to win and those guys made this a winning program. We want to do the same thing for those guys and the guys who come after us.”
With only two seniors and two juniors on the 12-man active roster, this will be one of the youngest Top-25 teams in the country and probably a work-in-progress. Starting three sophomores and a freshman, along with junior Ryan Appleby, the Huskies struggled a bit in a 108-74 exhibition game win over Saint Martin’s last week. But Washington also showed what it’s capable of, as Oliver scored 20 points, Pondexter had 18 points and 13 rebounds and Nelson had 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Add to the fact that the Huskies got limited production from their two returning starters – Brockman and Justin Dentmon – and that Hawes and Joel Smith did not play with injuries, and it wasn’t a bad start.
But the Huskies also know they are playing much better teams than the Division I-AA Saints the rest of the season, starting with the Basketball Travelers Classic Nov. 12-14 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Washington plays Pepperdine, Nicholls State and Northern Iowa in that tournament. Also on the schedule are games at Gonzaga and Pittsburgh and a home matchup with Final Four team LSU.
“Those are the teams we should be playing,” Dentmon said. “That’s the only way you get better. We want to challenge ourselves every game.”
The challenge this year will be twofold. The schedule is more difficult than it was a year ago, and Washington faces it with a mostly inexperienced group. But there’s also the challenge to build on the legacy now in place.
“We have a lot to live up to, and we’re looking forward to that,” Brockman said. “Those guys have let us know that they expect us to keep winning and go a long way. And we expect that from ourselves just as much.”
“Washington basketball is known for winning and we need to keep that going,” Pondexter said. “No one wants to be the one who stopped something that’s been going good. We want to be the ones who do even better.”