Lost in the exuberance over Washington basketball‘s abrupt return from goo to whoo-hoo was the fact that coach Lorenzo Romar went into the Pac-10 postseason tourney in Los Angeles without a net and not only survived, but lived to cut down a net.
As if degree of difficulty wasn’t sufficiently high — losing twice in the final three home games, suspending a player over a publicly mortifying episode, and drawing in the first round an opponent that swept the Huskies in the regular season — Romar on tourney’s eve abruptly switched his starting lineup.
“I don’t like doing it,” he said Sunday. Basketball coaches make voluntary, late-season changes to their lineups about as eagerly as dental patients enjoy having their teeth put in a different order.
The change grew riskier because he inserted a freshman in the lineup, giving Terrence Ross his first career start, replacing the seven-foot center, Aziz N’Diaye, who started 24 games.
To add bewilderment, Romar claimed the reason was for defense.
Any serious fan of Washington hoops this year noticed that Ross is frequently so lost on defense that he practically needs the proper foot placements embedded on the court, as in dance school. But Romar wasn’t kidding.
“It’s not a contradiction,” he insisted. “He had been a little bit behind defensively. But we made a decision before the game on defense to switch on all screens (defenders exchanging assignments instead of fighting through picks). It was a little bit of a risk, but if you’re going to switch, you don’t want Aziz guarding (6-3 WSU guard) Reggie Moore.
“We wanted to try to keep (WSU shooters) from catching in the ball. I think we made it a little more difficult for them to run their sets.”
Obviously, it had no effect on Klay Thompson, who set a tourney record with 43 points, and WSU still scored 87 points on 47 percent shooting. But in the two previous meetings, Cougars coach Ken Bone, Romar’s former assistant, obviously felt he had nailed the UW system. So for Romar, even a tiny edge was better than no edge.
Romar gave thought to opening with Scott Suggs, a nine-game starter, but played a hunch that Ross was ready.
“Even though Terrence didn’t play much (in the last two regular-season games), you knew he was capable of doing what he did,” he said. “We had to go smaller against Washington State. In Terrence, we had a more physical presence.
“When Aziz came in, we went to a zone.”
After beating WSU 89-87, Romar was prepared to return N’Diaye to the starting lineup in the semifinals, and would have, except Oregon beat favored UCLA. Instead of facing a team with more size, Romar was up against another smallish outfit in the Ducks.
So he stuck with Ross, and the Huskies prevailed, 69-51. Why stop now?
“Then we get to the third game, and we’ve done well (2-0), so we stayed with it.”
The other part of the payoff with Ross is that he is the fifth offensive threat, as opposed to N’Diaye, whom many opponents don’t bother to defend since he is so offensively dubious that he self-guards. That helped against Arizona, which could no longer afford to send a second defender into the paint when Isaiah Thomas busted one of his cross-over drives and bulled hoopward.
Romar gave warning to all that the Huskies’ near-desperation might prompt surprises.
“We told our players we may start three different lineups in three nights,” he said. “Just be prepared.”
Romar dismissed the notion that the absence of Overton and injured Abdul Gaddy left UW seriously short-handed.
“The issue of short-handedness was overrated,” he said. “We were shorthanded at point guard; nowhere else. We could rotate our front court and our two-guards. If something happened to Isaiah, we would have been in a lot more trouble.”
Instead, Thomas was a happening. And now Washington is happening in the NCAA Tournament, drawing a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday. Romar was non-committal on his opening lineup for Friday’s opener in Charlotte, N.C., needing to see film on a team he knows little about, the 10th-seeded Georgia Bulldogs.
But with Ross becoming the 10th player to start a game this season for the Huskies, who seem nearly interchangeable except for Thomas and N’Diaye, the Huskies would seem to be a more complicated study for Georgia.
If Romar can’t know until around lunch what he’s about to do that night, the scouting report runs a little thin on the Huskies.
These young Dawgs not only look great for next year, but are awe inspiring to watch this year. What a good group!