November 02, 2010
LOS ANGELES — As Washington prepared for its Sweet 16 matchup against heavily favored West Virginia last March, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar gathered his players together and dangled a motivational carrot in front of them.
"You guys have the chance to be the first Washington team ever to go further than the Sweet 16 if you win this game," Romar told them.
West Virginia ultimately overwhelmed Washington in the second half of that game with its size and toughness on the glass, but Romar's pregame message has stuck with the returning Huskies all these months later. Point guard Isaiah Thomas said at Pac-10 media day last week that he won't be satisfied with the season unless Washington wins a game during the second week of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
"It's one of my goals to be known as the guy who took his team further than anyone else and a guy that's put in the history books," Thomas said. "It's on our mind, but at the same time we're worried about right now and that will come. Everybody knows what it is, but we don't need to talk about it too much."
It's easy to see why busting through that Sweet 16 ceiling would be important to Washington because the Huskies have endured so many heartbreaking moments in the past.
There was Richard Hamilton's fallaway buzzer-beating game-winner that sent UConn past Washington in the 1998 Sweet 16. There was a one-sided loss to Louisville in the 2005 Sweet 16 when the Huskies were the top seed in their region. And there was another loss to UConn in the 2006 Sweet 16, this time in overtime after a Rashad Anderson 3-pointer tied it at the end of regulation.
"I think it's a compliment to our program if someone says, 'What's wrong with you guys? You can't get past the Sweet 16?'" Romar said. "It could be worse. But I do think that you're not playing to settle. You want to play until that last second. It's everyone's goal."
The good news for the Huskies is they have the talent to achieve that goal again this season despite the graduation of all-conference forward Quincy Pondexter and the transfer of sharpshooter Elston Turner. With four starters returning from a team that went 26-10 last year, Washington enters the new season as a heavy favorite to win a Pac-10 that otherwise seems to be lacking top 25-caliber teams.
Thomas is the league's top playmaker, forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning is a gifted back-to-the-basket scorer and Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday may be the Pac-10's two best perimeter defenders. If Washington can mesh a little faster than it did a year ago and get some perimeter scoring from former five-star recruit Abdul Gaddy or newcomer Terrence Ross, Thomas likes his team's chances.
"In my three years, this is definitely the most talented team we've had," Thomas said. "We just have to jell together, get that chemistry right and I think we can make some noise."