SEATTLE – It was a question that was on the minds of many Washington men’s basketball fans coming into the season: Could a curly haired transfer and an untested freshman step in at point guard and run the Huskies’ fast-paced, high-scoring offense?
After all, the position had been manned by two of the greatest players in the program’s history in Will Conroy and Nate Robinson, who led the Huskies to the greatest season in Washington history.
People heard coach Lorenzo Romar say that Ryan Appleby was the best shooter on the team, and that Justin Dentmon was no ordinary freshman. They heard Brandon Roy say that the two guards were ready to really help the team. But fans wanted to see for themselves.
Now, they’ve seen, and if the question hasn’t been completely answered yet, it’s certainly not a pressing issue for No. 13 Washington (7-0). Dentmon and Appleby have shown they can handle the UW’s point guard duties and are more than ready to help the Huskies continue to build the program into one of the nation’s best.
“I knew people were thinking about it,” said Appleby, the former Stanwood High School star who sat out last season after transferring from Florida. “I knew people were asking questions about it before the season started. I knew that would be something people were worried about. But you can’t worry about what other people think.”
Never was the two player’s abilities more evident than during Sunday’s 99-95 victory over then-sixth-ranked Gonzaga. With Roy saddled with foul trouble, Appleby and Dentmon stepped forward with big shot after big shot. Dentmon scored 11 of his career-high 17 points in the last 9:40, and Appleby made four 3-pointers that either slowed Gonzaga runs or gave Washington the lead.
“We saw Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby really step up in Brandon Roy’s absence,” Romar said.
Washington assistant coach Cameron Dollar, the point guard on UCLA’s 1995 NCAA championship team, said he isn’t surprised that either player has been this good this early.
“Both of them are tough kids,” Dollar said. “They do a good job of implementing the offense and doing what we ask them to do. They are pleasers. They want to do what we ask exactly how we ask them to do it. They have an aggressive mind set and they’re confident in their abilities. And they haven’t backed down from any challenges.”
Dentmon and Appleby face a new challenge Saturday when Washington goes on the road for the first time, playing New Mexico in the Wooden Classic at noon at the Anaheim Pond.
While both players are technically point guards, their roles are different. Dentmon, along with Roy, has been Washington’s primary ball-handler, and is not playing like a freshman. The Carbondale, Ill., native has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (36-to-16), averages 9.3 points, a team-high 5.1 assists, is tied for the team lead with 12 steals and leads the team in minutes (26.4 a game). He admits that he felt plenty of pressure coming into the season, but now feels comfortable.
“I felt I had to come in and play hard to get a starting spot,” Dentmon said. “I knew it wouldn’t be given to me. I knew I had to work to get what I’ve got now.”
The crowd clearly has taken to Dentmon, who sports the same number – 5 – that Conroy wore during his Husky career.
“When I came here on a recruiting visit last year, I took (Conroy’s) locker,” said Dentmon, who said he’s worn the number since high school. “He said, ‘Look, he’s already moving in.’ “
“We told him to just play through being a freshman and the whirlwind of learning everything,” Dollar said. “Don’t let the learning stifle your game.”
Appleby has been more of a combination guard than a true point. He has handled the ball, but he also is Washington’s best outside shooter, so he has been free to move without the ball and run off picks. He leads the Huskies with 21 3-pointers and is shooting 45.7 percent from behind the arc. He also is the team’s best scorer (10.7 points per game) off the bench.
“I’d always been a pass-first point guard,” Appleby said. “I could always shoot, but I was always asked to pass first. This is different. Now they’re telling me to do the opposite of what I’m used to. I’m still getting used to it.”
“We’ve had to work with him and tell him to be aggressive shooting,” Dollar said. “We needed him to do that to open things up, and he has.”
The biggest key, Appleby and Dentmon agree, is that they aren’t trying to fill the shoes of Conroy, Robinson and Tre Simmons. Instead, they are just trying to establish their own identity.
“They’re going to be who they are,” Dollar said. “We want them working on the things that make them the players they are, not on doing things other guys did. And they’ve done well. They’re players, and they’ve made plays.”
“We didn’t go out there trying to make sure that everyone who was watching was alright with how the point guard was doing,” Appleby said. “I go out there to win, and people can think what they want. I’m not too worried about it.”