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August 18, 2010

Washington hopes to find chemistry early

Like a liberal arts major at Washington, the Huskies' basketball team collectively hopes it won't need to retake a course in chemistry.

Washington needed nearly two-thirds of last season to find the right mix on the court, and they found it in time to win the Pac-10 tournament and advance to the Sweet 16, one of the few highlights in an otherwise lackluster season for the conference as a whole.

Four starters are back, and the Huskies add two key freshmen to the roster while losing All-Pac-10 forward Quincy Pondexter. As the Huskies learned last season, finding chemistry and consistency isn't guaranteed even with a returning core group of players.

Once Washington got it right, though, the Huskies finally looked like the top-15 team they were predicted to be at the start of the season.

"The second half of last year was the most fun I've had since I've been here," junior guard Isaiah Thomas said. "People accepted roles with no egos. If we find that early, we have a chance of being a good team."

Without Pondexter, who finished in the top three in the Pac-10 in scoring and rebounding, coach Lorenzo Romar needs to make sure his guards maintain the roles and chemistry they developed late last season.

Thomas, who has averaged 16.2 points per game in two seasons, in the scorer. Sophomore Abdul Gaddy came in with the fanfare of a five-star prospect, but was primary the distributor. Swingman Justin Holiday is the defensive stopper. Venoy Overton brings energy off the bench, but he plays starter's minutes thanks to his defensive acumen.

But even with five of the top six players in terms of minutes played returning, the look of the team is bound to change.

"I guarantee with this group there are going to be several players who will be entirely different players than they were before," Romar said.

Romar's best example of working with changing roles came after the 2007-08 season. Jon Brockman averaged 17.8 points and 11.6 rebounds that season, but the Huskies had a losing record. Thomas' arrival and the development of Justin Dentmon meant the focus of the 2008-09 team would shift to the guards.

Before that season, Romar told Brockman he likely would have to score less for the team to win more. Brockman was a good listener. He averaged three fewer points per game, but Washington won 26 games and the Pac-10 title.

Romar hasn't had any of those discussions with his team yet, but expects to have them once practice begins Oct. 15.

"Certain combinations are more effective than others," he said. "That's when you start to speak with certain guys about 'this is what we need you to do for this team to be the best it can possibly be.'

"Some guys don't embrace that role right away. Some others can't wait to do it."

For Washington last season, finding the right roles took until January and February. The Huskies didn't get truly on track there were two key lineup changes.

Holiday didn't become a full-time starter until Jan. 14. Forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning began the season as a starter but came off the bench for more than a month. He returned to the starting lineup full-time Feb. 3.

Once Washington established a consistent starting five with those two joining Gaddy, Thomas and Pondexter, the Huskies took off. With that starting lineup, Washington went 10-2, winning nine in a row before losing to West Virginia in the Sweet 16.

The key was Holiday, who averaged 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds as a starter.

"Once he got put in the starting lineup, we realized we've got to be more like him," Thomas said. "He does whatever it takes to win ballgames."

Frankly, it may be best for the Pac-10 that Washington wins a bunch of games. This season, it may be a case of how Washington goes, so does the Pac-10.

Defending regular-season champion California lost its top four senior scorers. Coming off a 14-18 season, UCLA needs Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt to make big progress. Arizona has a league player of the year candidate in Derrick Williams but must replace senior guard Nic Wise. Arizona State is coming off an NIT season and needs former role players Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott to again lead the way.

There doesn't appear to be a large influx of talent into the league. Stanford, UCLA and Cal landed top-25 signing classes, but none were in the top 15 and league teams signed just five of the nation's top 50 prospects in the 2010 class. Every other Big Six conference has at least seven top-50 players coming in.

Washington was lucky to get one of those in swingman Terrence Ross, but the Huskies lost five-star forward Terrence Jones of Portland, Ore., when Kentucky signed the former Huskies commitment during the late signing period.

Ross becomes the headliner of Washington's signing class. A teammate of Jones' at Portland Jefferson, Ross was the No. 48 prospect in the country. Romar said Ross could be Washington's most talented wing player. Of course, Ross needs to find where he fits into Washington's plans.

"He still has to learn the college game and our system," Romar said. "How long does that take? Some guys pick it up day one; some guys, it takes longer."

The newcomer with the most impact could be center Aziz N'Diaye. He's a 7-foot transfer from the College of Southern Idaho who could become the back line of defense for Washington. The 6-9 Bryan-Amaning was the tallest regular in last season's lineup.

"He can put out a lot of fires for us," Romar said. "He gives us an inside presence that we haven't had."

Washington will have a chance to prove itself early in the season, in the Maui Invitational. The Huskies open against Virginia (led by former Washington State coach Tony Bennett) before a potential second-round matchup with Kentucky.

After dropping early non-conference games against Texas Tech and Georgetown a year ago, Washington wants to prove itself out of conference this season. If that doesn't happen, Washington at least showed it eventually knows how to adjust on the fly.

"I liked the way we went a lot of adversity and came back," Thomas said. "That shows how much we matured and got better."

Chances are Thomas would like the season even better if the Huskies go light on the adversity and heavy on the team chemistry.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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