While incremental improvements to the Washington basketball team are visible to the discerning observer, it is nevertheless remarkable that after 23 contests in a 30-game regular season, this group of Huskies, at 9-2, is in first place in the Pac-12 Conference.
Be careful — serious fans scratching their heads over this team are taking scalp divots.
UW fans have seen these heights before, specifically in the 2005-06 season, which also was 9-2 heading into a game in Eugene. But even Lorenzo Romar, who has on occasion planted a rose upon a slag heap, knows better than to kid this time.
“That team knew its direction,” he said Tuesday at his weekly media chat. “It was more of a well-oiled team.
“This team has not hit its stride.”
Which is as close as he will get to saying, “Damn, I wish we weren’t playing at Oregon Thursday.”
The Ducks’ game and one Sunday at Oregon State are part of a finish that includes five of the final seven games on a hard road. Since a sound, 76-60 thumping on New Year’s Eve at Hec Ed, the Ducks have re-sorted their feathers to win six of the last nine and, at 7-4 and 16-7 (same overall record as UW) are tied for fourth.
Even in a shiny new arena far less creepy than the old Mac Crypt, er, Court, the Ducks are a load and a half at home.
“The Oregon trip always worries coach,” said senior Darnell Gant, who then snickered. “The Oregon trip always worries me.”
Said Romar: “They’re much better than when they played here. Much better.”
So too are the Huskies, winners of five in a row and 11 of the past 13. But all but one of those games have been in the Pac-12, the Mr. Sta-Puft of big-time conferences.
Which is where the comparisons between this season and ’05-06 start to fray.
“The league was stronger then, no doubt about it,” said Romar. Then he paused. “I’m not giving any of the wins back.”
Chuckles ensued. The Huskies are not responsible for who comes through door, they are required only to whack them. And for a group that includes only one senior, Gant, who plays, they have done more whacking than seemed possible around Christmas.
But as Romar noted, the ’05-06 team was loaded with upperclassmen, notably All-American-to-be Brandon Roy as well as Will Conroy, Bobby Jones and other tournament-experienced vets. This season began with seven freshmen in the mix, and no longer has a senior starter.
They’re so new to the conference and each other that going haywire is a breakdown away. Romar joked that against USC, one player forgot his assignment and the entire team was lost.
“It looked like the Patriots,” Romar said of New England’s defense of the Giants’ final touchdown in the Super Bowl Sunday. “But that was intentional.”
It’s the fault of neither player nor coach that the Huskies, for a conference leader, seem a little vulnerable, especially compared with their predecessors. Injuries haven’t helped, forcing Romar to manage minutes more carefully to squeeze what he can out of Tony Wroten and C.J. Wilcox, the pair most bruised.
But it has opened the door for one guy — Shawn Kemp Jr. After losing playing time to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the mid-season refugee from football, Kemp is coming off the bench with some passion and direction.
“It motivated me — a lot,” Kemp said of his lost playing time. Besides his baritone voice and No. 40 jersey, young Kemp finally took on a few times the demeanor of his legendary Sonics daddy.
Getting 11 minutes against UCLA and 13 against USC, the 6-9 freshman responded with a combined 10 points, including three walloping dunks that made fans of the Sonics a little misty for the Reign Man.
After dropping 25 pounds and getting a clue about organized ball — he sat out two years before getting his grades in order — young Kemp is now on the verge of being counted on by Romar.
“In a couple of years, I want to be the guy this team wants to go to in the closing minutes,” he said. “I want them to come to me for quick points.”
That was a hallmark of his pops, whom Gant remembers as “a freak athlete” who was “so much fun to see play.”
Kemp is nowhere close to assuming control of a game. But in the final stretch of a season in which the Huskies and the top half-dozen Pac-12 teams all seem fragile, all Kemp needs to be is a help.
This team is nowhere close to the tough guys of the early Romar era. But they have to start somewhere, and there’s no place like Eugene to find an edge and keep it sharp.