WASHINGTON, D.C. – Friday night’s loss by the Washington men’s basketball team against Connecticut in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament didn’t just end a season. When Brandon Roy, Bobby Jones, Mike Jensen and Jamaal Williams walked off the court for the last time, it ended an era of Husky basketball.
The players who take the court for Washington next season will not know what it’s like to play for a Husky team that is struggling simply to finish with a winning record. They won’t know what it’s like to play in a half-empty Hec Edmundson Pavilion. They won’t know Washington as anything other than a program that should be among the nation’s best every year.
The four seniors who depart this season, along with the four who left last year, laid the foundation for what this new breed of Husky must carry on. And make no mistake, the pressure will only build next season for what will be a very young Washington team. After two-straight Sweet 16 appearances and a game the UW probably should have won against supremely talented Connecticut with most of the basketball-watching country watching, Washington is now on the map. The expectations are now there. People outside the West realize that there are other Pac-10 teams besides Arizona and UCLA.
So, what are the Huskies going to do about it? They’ll play a tougher schedule next year, with games against LSU and Gonzaga already scheduled. They won’t have the brilliance of Roy to fall back on when the pressure is on. They’ll have to form their own identity, while maintaining, and raising, the profile that’s been established.
There’s been speculation that the 2006-07 Huskies could be the best team yet. The incoming class is among the top in the nation, and this year’s youngsters like Justin Dentmon, Jon Brockman and Artem Wallace will have a year’s experience.
But it must be remembered that, as talented as the incoming players are, they are just freshman. Remember, Brockman was one of the nation’s top recruits. And while he had a steady year, he certainly didn’t put up the numbers that many expected of him. Playing Division I basketball is a whole new game, and it can’t be assumed that Spencer Hawes and company will step in and immediately play like seasoned veterans.
Which is not to say that Washington will take a step back. It’s possible that the Huskies could be just as good as they have been recently. There will still be plenty of athleticism and quickness, and this will be the biggest Husky team since the 1998 Sweet 16 team.
After his dazzling play in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no question that Dentmon is a point guard that a team can build around, and he will only get better. Brockman gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of against Connecticut, and he surely will come back more confident and comfortable, which should translate into more offense. And the 7-foot Hawes – who led Seattle Prep to the Class 3A state title – is an enormous talent who will have a huge impact right away.
Who will join them in the rotation?
Joel Smith will be the most experienced player, but had a very inconsistent season. He’ll need to improve his ball-handling and decision-making in the offseason, but there’s no doubting his athleticism. Ryan Appleby would give Washington a dangerous 3-point shooter and another ball-handler, possibly freeing Dentmon up to look for his shot more, but Appleby must improve his dribbling and defense. Harvey Perry redshirted this year but would give Washington someone comparable to Jones, an athletic defensive player who can handle the ball and shoot some. And Quincy Pondexter, a 6-7 forward from Fresno, Calif., was a Top-25 recruit with great athleticism and the ability to score and defend.
There will be ample size on the bench. Seven-footer Joe Wolfinger, who redshirted this year, has Lorenzo Romar raving about his ability. The 6-8 Wallace didn’t see much action as a freshman but is athletic, can rebound and will be physical. And there’s still 6-9 Hans Gasser and, possibly, 6-7 Zach Johnson. The backcourt reserves will include a pair of freshman and a senior. Brandon Burmeister will be back after having some impressive moments, though his role could be lessened with the incoming freshmen, Adrian Oliver and Phil Nelson. Oliver is similar to Dentmon in that he was a terrific prep scorer who will be asked to be more of a distributor. And the 6-8 Nelson is one of the nation’s top outside shooters.
So clearly, from an athletic standpoint, the pieces are in place. Athletically, Washington should be able to compete with most of the teams it plays. But there were so many intangibles that Roy and Jones, in particular, brought, that must be replaced. One or two players must emerge as go-to guys comfortable with the ball in crunch time. Someone (possibly Dentmon and Brockman, though they’re just freshmen) must take over the leadership mantle.
But more than anything, there will be a newfound pressure from the start of the season that Washington has not been faced with. The Huskies have wanted to be thought of as an elite team for some time. Now they are. How will the new, young players handle the expectations?
We can’t wait to find out.