Washington Seeks Return to Prominence

Nov. 10, 2008

By Gregg Bell
AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE -- What in the name of Brandon Roy do an Alaskan forest, a fancy prep school in Connecticut and a paintball course have to do with Washington's basketball team?

Those odd locales are where the leaders of the Huskies' push back to national prominence this season found their strength, foundation and motivation.

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Jon Brockman spent some of his summer in the woods outside Ketchikan, Alaska, where the Huskies' brutish star scorer and the nation's leading returning rebounder turned into Jeremiah Johnson while at a fishing lodge. Washington's All-America hopeful and former All-Pac-10 player threw logs, boulders and two-by-fours. He rolled steel buoys. He took on everything there except the grizzly bears.

'I couldn't do any more jogging,' Brockman said, smiling. 'Going there allowed me to test completely new parts of my body.'

The result is Brockman transforming his 6-foot-7, 225-pound body from a bruising granite block into a noticeably more dynamic, 'Doberman-sleek' package, in the words of coach Lorenzo Romar. Brockman weighs the same but vows to play differently, with a more explosive first step inside.

'Explosive' is just one word being used to herald the long-awaited Huskies debut of guard Isaiah Thomas. The 19-year-old scoring and passing whiz from Tacoma was the state Class 4A player of the year as a junior at Curtis High School. As a senior two years ago, he ripped through the Washington state high school tournament by averaging 41.5 points and scoring 51 points in one game.

But he hasn't yet played beyond the high-school level. For two years he's been growing up at South Kent School, an all-boys boarding school west of Hartford, Conn.

There, grades are issued on an 'effort rating system' for both academics and community life in jobs, athletics and general citizenship in the dormitories - which aren't exactly college-like. Thomas' dorm had 'dorm parents' living in them.

Not the usual route for a new playmaker in the Pac-10, one Romar has already named as a starter.

The flashy freshman has promised to bring back the running and pizazz of the Nate Robinson-Will Conroy-Brandon Roy Huskies teams that routinely reached the NCAA tournament and its regional rounds earlier this decade.

'He brings us a little of that swagger that we need,' Brockman said of Thomas.

To aid that cause, Robinson, now with the NBA's New York Knicks, recently encouraged Thomas to wear his old No. 2 at the UW. Thomas said he's up to the responsibility.

'I'm just more mature, more as a person than as basketball player,' Thomas said of his two years being isolated in Connecticut, while Washington slogged through consecutive seasons without an NCAA tournament berth and got passed in local hierarchy by Gonzaga and Washington State.

'Being so far from home forced me to grow up,' Thomas said.

Yet kids are still motivating these Huskies to get back to winning this season.

Washington went on a team-bonding outing this summer to a paintball facility in Seattle's suburbs. The college men were running through the course trading sneak attacks with grade schoolers when a boy paused from action because he recognized Huskies enigmatic guard Justin Dentmon.

'How's it feel to lose to Wazzu all those times in a row?' the kid asked Dentmon through his mask, stunning the senior more than any pellet of paint did.

'And he was just a little boy. Man, that gave me some motivation,' Dentmon said, still shaking his head.

Washington has lost to WSU seven consecutive times, after having beaten the hated Cougars six times in seven meetings. That's just one of many wrongs the Huskies are seeking to right this season with Brockman, Thomas and Dentmon leading a hungry team that also has starter Quincy Pondexter (9.9 points per game last season) returning.

They will lead letterman Venoy Overton (3.2 assists per game last season), expectation-saddled Matthew Bryan-Amaning (4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game), newly eligible Darnell Gant, a redshirt freshman, and true freshmen Scott Suggs, Elston Turner and Tyreese Breshers, who is coming off surgery for a broken shin. Washington has just one true center, 6-8 senior Artem Wallace. Joe Wolfinger, a 7-footer, likes to float more outside to take jump shots.

It adds up to a Huskies team that promises more of the entertaining, running-and-pressing style of Robinson-Conroy-Roy vintage than the relatively stationary last two seasons, when 7-foot low post Spencer Hawes and then inconsistency slowed the Huskies into mediocrity.

'I expect this to be a season when we can look back at the end of the year and say, 'That was a fun year,'' Romar said, careful not to burden his team with expectations of an NCAA tournament berth within an apparently weaker Pac-10.

Brockman isn't so careful.

'The goal is getting back to the NCAA tournament. Not being there and watching it on TV the last two years, it hurts,' he said. 'My window's almost closed.'

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