College Basketball Nation: Lorenzo Romar

SEATTLE -- Barring a surprise involving seniors Abdul Gaddy or Aziz N'Diaye, the University of Washington won't have a player selected in Thursday's NBA draft. That has become out of the ordinary, as reinforced by Sunday's inaugural alumni game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. A sellout crowd watched 12 current and former NBA players from the past decade battle in a game won by post-2009 pro draftees over their older Huskies counterparts, 107-103.

Such a matchup was inconceivable 11 years ago, when Lorenzo Romar returned to coach at his alma mater. At that point, the only Washington player active in the NBA was Todd MacCulloch. During the entire 1990s, a down period for the program, UW sent just three players to the league.

That lack of elite talent changed quickly under Romar's leadership. Starting in 2005, Washington has had at least one player selected in the draft seven of the past eight years, including six first-round picks. Ten Huskies altogether played in the NBA last season; if College Basketball Nation's Path to the Draft series looked only at current NBA players, UW would crack the top 10.

All of those players returned to Seattle for Sunday's game, and the lengths they traveled spoke volumes about its importance. Center Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who plays overseas, returned from his native London. Forward Bobby Jones, who spent two years in the NBA, came directly after finishing his playoffs in Italy. And Quincy Pondexter, a breakout star for the Memphis Grizzlies during this year's Western Conference finals, flew 15 hours after participating in an NBA Cares clinic in Singapore, arriving Sunday morning.

"At all costs I was going to be here," said Pondexter. "I had prior obligations and I took care of those and sprinted here as fast as I can. Plane, train, automobile -- I would have been here."

The same could be said of Husky fans, who packed Hec Ed to the point of sweltering like a high school gym. Thousands of fans bought tickets the day of the game, and more had to be turned away after the arena reached capacity. The attendance exceeded Romar's expectations "out of the stratosphere."

"I was hoping we'd get 5,000," he said. "There's no way I thought we'd fill it up and turn people away."

The fans who made it in saw a pair of games. The first, billed as the "Legends Game," featured Washington players from the 1990s all the way back to the '50s, including all-time leading scorer Christian Welp. In a 16-minute showcase that tested the endurance of several older alumni, Romar himself stole the show. The 1980 grad, who spent five seasons in the NBA before moving to the sidelines, knocked down three triples in a row at one point and led all scorers with 11 points to earn MVP honors.

Then Romar settled in at courtside with his family to watch the players he recruited and coached put on a show. The pre-2009 roster was highlighted by stalwarts who lifted the Huskies from the bottom of the Pac-10 to a No. 1 seed in 2005, including NBA All-Star Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson. They squared off against younger Washington products like Pondexter, Terrence Ross and Isaiah Thomas in a matchup played with slightly more intensity than the typical charity game because of the bragging rights on the line.

The post-2009 team led throughout and held on for the 107-103 win, getting 24 points from Thomas, the game's MVP. Tony Wroten added 19 points and Pondexter 17. Spencer Hawes of the Philadelphia 76ers had 21 points and 17 rebounds for the pre-2009 team, while international veteran Tre Simmons scored 23 points and Will Conroy had a triple-double (16 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, but also 10 turnovers).

The day wrapped up with a slam-dunk contest, where 2012 grad Darnell Gant upset Ross, the reigning NBA dunk champion. Gant earned a perfect 50 for dunking home a lob off the shot clock, and Ross -- who got his own 50 when he windmilled a lob by Wroten from the balcony -- blew several tries at his only dunk in the finals before settling for a more conservative finish.

Throughout, the alumni game experience served as a celebration of what Romar has built at UW, from NBA talent to one of the Pac-12's most devoted fan bases.

"It's a testament to the program and how much it's grown to be able to put something like this on," said Hawes. "There's not a lot of schools that have enough guys and enough support from the community that you could pull something like this off."
1. UCLA, USC and Minnesota are finding out what Oregon and others have discovered in how difficult it is to extract coaches from good situations. On the surface the jobs are perceived as better jobs than what some of these coaches currently have, but leaving a comfortable situation, an athletic director or president that they get along with, and facilities can be difficult to match. Oregon was fortunate when it landed Creighton's Dana Altman, but he was down the list. How many schools get their first choice? Even Wichita State's Gregg Marshall has a great situation for him. He makes more than $1 million and is now at the top job in the Missouri Valley Conference. Marshall could make his style work at any of the three openings. All three schools should make a major play for him. But he doesn't have to move now that he made the Elite Eight. Butler's Brad Stevens, Gonzaga's Mark Few and VCU's Shaka Smart have listened, but don't need to move and haven't so far. This is a humbling experience for these ADs when they go out expecting to find a coach and struggle.

2. We'll see what happens over the weekend, but I still think Flip Saunders would be the perfect fit for Minnesota. He's working for ESPN as an NBA analyst and loves the Gophers. He could do for Minnesota what Fred Hoiberg has done for Iowa State. A former UCLA staffer is convinced that the Bruins could end up with Washington's Lorenzo Romar. The point being made was that the Bruins need a coach who can work Los Angeles as well as the country club crew. He also would play an up-tempo style. Romar won the Pac-12 in 2012, but didn't make the NCAAs. He didn't make it again this year. Romar could be a fall-back candidate, but he wouldn't be a bad settling choice for the Bruins at this point. UCLA, USC and Minnesota had to make plays for names, but in the end they all got played.

3. Indiana could be a Big Ten title contender again in 2014 with Cody Zeller. He has a month to consider (by the time of the NBA deadline) and get worked by agents. But Zeller was exposed against Syracuse as playing too short and not being able to get his shot off in a half-court set. Zeller will have to seriously consider if he's ready. He can get drafted, but he won't be able to contribute, and so much now is about the second contract. He needs to get into the league and be ready to play. He's not. Meanwhile, Indiana's Victor Oladipo is and will be a lottery pick with his overall athleticism, and ability to defend and score in a variety of ways. I would be shocked if he returned.
1. Minnesota coveted VCU’s Shaka Smart, but his former boss, current Golden Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague, couldn’t convince Smart to come to the Twin Cities (he should know Smart is loyal to VCU) for the head-coaching job from which Tubby Smith was just fired. According to sources, the Gophers have now turned their attention to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Butler’s Brad Stevens. We’ll see, but I’ll be shocked if either were to go to Minnesota. Hoiberg is the Mayor in Ames (it's his alma mater) and has Iowa State in a good place after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. If Hoiberg were to leave for Minnesota, the NBA's Timberwolves, not the Gophers, would make more sense. I can’t see Stevens bolting, either, with how much he loves the Butler way and working for AD Barry Collier. Stevens can have a lifetime contract at Butler, much like Mark Few has at Gonzaga. If they can't convince either of these two, the Gophers may make a play for Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. But Cronin is from Cincinnati and loves his gig, too. The only reason he might listen is if he sees the need to go to a school in a more stable conference.

2. NC State has made it clear that coach Mark Gottfried hasn’t heard anything from UCLA. Athletic director Debbie Yow also is quick to remind everyone of the $3.75 million buyout in Gottfried’s contract, which she terms non-negotiable. Much as he got many in the Research Triangle to warm to NC State, Gottfried would fit at UCLA. But it would be too hard for UCLA to pry him out of Raleigh. Multiple sources continue to think the Bruins may have to go with an NBA coach. But there are other options out there -- Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, hasn’t been contacted; apparently neither has Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has recruited Los Angeles well. USC, meanwhile, might end up going with a quality coach, albeit not a huge name. Remember, Oregon didn’t get its first choice, but did land a big-time talent in Dana Altman. It can be done.

3. Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway has made it clear he wants a current head coach for its vacancy, according to sources, making it seem more realistic he would lean toward coaches like Iona’s Tim Cluess and/or Tom Moore of Quinnipiac. Quality openings like Old Dominion and Siena remain. Meanwhile, sources close to former UCLA coach Ben Howland anticipate he’ll sit out next season rather than take a job.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

March, 8, 2013
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Does anyone want to win the Pac-12? The regular-season championship trophy has been dangling in front of the Oregon Ducks, UCLA Bruins and Cal Golden Bears all week, but no one has stepped up and grabbed it.

Cal was manhandled by Stanford -- at home, no less -- on Tuesday. UCLA suffered one of the biggest upsets of the conference season by falling at last-place Washington State on Wednesday. Oregon had a chance to clinch at least a share of the title by beating Colorado on Thursday. Instead, the Ducks were blown out in Boulder.

Sheessh!

Name another league where the teams at the bottom are outplaying the teams at the top at the end of the season. The Pac-12 tournament can't get here fast enough.

Here is the final edition of the Pac-12 power rankings. With most of the top teams losing their most recent games, these rankings are based on the entire conference season.

1a. Oregon. Despite the tail-kicking the Ducks received at Colorado on Thursday, it's impossible not to be impressed with the job Dana Altman has done with this squad. Oregon -- which starts two freshmen in its backcourt -- can clinch at least a share of the league title by winning at Utah on Saturday. A Ducks victory and a UCLA loss (at Washington the same day) will give Oregon the title outright.

1b. UCLA. The Bruins have come a long way since losing to Cal Poly early in the season and, for that, Ben Howland deserves credit. Howland's detractors, however, received some extra ammunition Wednesday when UCLA lost to last-place Washington State. Performing that poorly in a game with such high stakes -- UCLA would own a share of the league title already if it had won -- is inexcusable.

1c. Cal. The Golden Bears' regular season is complete. Mike Montgomery's team finished league play 12-6 and can only get a share of the title if both UCLA and Oregon lose Saturday. Much like its counterparts, Cal wilted in a high-stakes game Tuesday when it fell to Stanford 83-70 at home. The Cardinal became the first team in 10 games to reach the 70-point plateau against Cal.

1d. Colorado. With six wins in their past eight games, the Buffaloes are the Pac-12's hottest team. Tad Boyle's squad swept its season series with Oregon and is 4-2 against Top-25 teams. Thursday's 76-53 victory came without the services of Andre Roberson, the nation's leading rebounder, who missed the game with a viral illness. Colorado will close the regular season hosting Oregon State on Saturday.

5. Arizona. The preseason pick to win the league, the Wildcats have been the Pac 12's biggest disappointment. Sean Miller's squad is just 1-5 against the top four teams in the conference. Arizona's highly touted freshmen have been slow to develop, and the Wildcats lack a true point guard.

6. Washington. After a month-long lull in which they lost seven of eight games, the Huskies are getting hot at just the right time. Lorenzo Romar's squad has won four of its past five, with the most impressive victory a 65-57 decision over USC on Wednesday. Washington, which gets 17.1 points per game from C.J. Wilcox, has a chance to spoil UCLA's Pac-12 title hopes Saturday.

7. USC. The biggest news surrounding the Trojans this week has revolved around their head-coaching vacancy. UTEP's Tim Floyd and Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins both have spoken with school officials about the position. Meanwhile, interim coach Bob Cantu continues to do a solid job. USC will finish Pac-12 play 10-8 if it can win at Washington State on Saturday. That's something no one envisioned after head coach Kevin O'Neill was fired in January.

8. Stanford. The Cardinal completed the regular season with an 18-13 overall record and a 9-9 mark in Pac-12 play. Unless it wins the conference tournament, Stanford will miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive year. That has to be disheartening to Cardinal fans, who had high hopes after winning last season's NIT.

9. Arizona State. The Sun Devils' 20 wins are twice as many as they had all of last season, but they've struggled in recent weeks. A painful overtime loss at UCLA was followed by a one-point setback at USC. Arizona State will have had an entire week off when it takes the court for Saturday's regular-season finale at Arizona.

10. Utah. The Utes ended a four-game losing streak by topping Oregon State on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Utah's four Pac-12 wins are one more than last season's total. The Utes will try to spoil Oregon's conference title hopes Saturday. Oregon beat Utah 73-64 on Feb. 9 in Eugene.

11. Washington State. The Cougars, who have been the victim of bad breaks and bad luck all season, finally tasted success Wednesday by defeating UCLA 73-61 in Pullman. Brock Motum had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Royce Woolridge added 19 points. The victory came despite the absence of second- and third-leading scorers DaVonte Lacy and Mike Ladd, both of whom have knee injuries. Coach Ken Bone said Lacy is out for the season.

12. Oregon State. It has been a nightmare of a season for the Beavers, who have now lost five consecutive games. Coach Craig Robinson appears to be safe for another year, but this team has too much talent to only have three victories in a league that, despite its parity, lacks elite teams.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

January, 18, 2013
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Fans of the Pac-12 should plan to be in front of their televisions Saturday for a pair of games featuring four of the league's top five teams. Arizona State hosts Arizona at 2:30 ET. Ninety minutes later, Oregon and UCLA tip off in Westwood. The results of those contests should have a big effect on the conference power rankings. As of now, here's how things stand.

1. Arizona. The No. 7 Wildcats bounced back nicely from their loss at Oregon on Jan. 10 by defeating Oregon State two days later in Corvallis. Sean Miller's squad hasn't played since, which is probably a good thing as it prepares for another tough road test against upstart Arizona State on Saturday. Point guard Mark Lyons is averaging 18.3 points in his past four games.

2. UCLA. The Bruins picked up their 10th consecutive victory Thursday in a 10-point win over Oregon State. UCLA, which hasn't lost since Dec. 1, is getting 8.9 rebounds per game from Kyle Anderson and 18.2 points per game from Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom are freshmen. Oregon will be UCLA's toughest Pac-12 opponent to date.

3. Oregon. E.J. Singler did a little bit of everything to help keep the Ducks undefeated Thursday night. He had 14 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in a 76-74 victory at USC. Freshman guard Damyean Dotson also had 14 points for Oregon, which could seize control of the Pac-12 race by beating UCLA on Saturday.

4. Washington. Now that everyone is healthy, Lorenzo Romar's squad looks like a completely different team from the one we saw early in the season. The Huskies beat Colorado by 10 points at home Wednesday and should get another W this weekend against last-place Utah. C.J. Wilcox is averaging 26 points in his past two games and 19.4 on the season.

5. Arizona State. The Sun Devils are a good basketball team -- but no one knows how good. Their nonconference schedule was weak and they couldn't beat Oregon in their only marquee Pac-12 game to date. That's why Saturday's tilt with Arizona in Tempe is so pivotal. A victory could enhance Arizona State's national image and do wonders for its resume come Selection Sunday.

6. Colorado. I'm shocked that the Buffaloes are 1-4 in league play. There is too much talent on Colorado's roster for that kind of a mark. Granted, the schedule hasn't been all that kind. The Buffs opened league play on the road against Arizona and Arizona State and also have lost at Washington, which is never an easy place to play. There's no reason they shouldn't win their next four games (against Washington State, Stanford, Cal and Utah).

7. Cal. The Golden Bears haven't played since last weekend's 67-54 win against Washington State. So they should be well-rested for Saturday's road game against rival Stanford. Allen Crabbe is averaging 20.1 points for Mike Montgomery's squad, which plays its next three games away from home.

8. Stanford. The only conference win for the Cardinal thus far came against Washington State on Jan. 9. They performed admirably in a 65-60 loss to league-unbeaten Washington three days later and are now preparing for Saturday's showdown against Cal. Dwight Powell averages 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.

9. USC. Even though I think it's ridiculous to fire a coach in the middle of the season, the Trojans certainly looked re-energized Thursday with a different coach calling the shots from the bench. Longtime USC assistant Bob Cantu was named interim coach after Kevin O'Neill's dismissal Monday. His team showed a ton of fight before bowing to Oregon 76-74.

10. Oregon State. Things are getting ugly for Beavers coach Craig Robinson, whose team fell to 0-4 in the Pac-12 following Thursday's loss at UCLA. If Oregon State doesn't bounce back with a win at USC on Saturday, Robinson's job security will no doubt come into question. Improvements have been made in the program, but unfortunately it's not showing up on the scoreboard.

11. Washington State. The Cougars picked up their first conference win Wednesday against Utah, but they could really turn some heads by beating Colorado on Saturday. A victory certainly isn't out of the question. The Buffaloes are struggling, and Washington State boasts one of the better home courts in the Pac-12.

12. Utah. The Utes' first three Pac-12 losses came by a combined eight points -- but their last two defeats both have come by double digits. Is Utah regressing? Things won't get any easier Saturday when it plays at red-hot Washington, which has yet to lose a conference game.

What a day for UConn coach Kevin Ollie

December, 30, 2012
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kevin Ollie grabbed the microphone after Saturday night’s game against Washington and thanked the Huskies faithful for their support and for believing in him. He made sure he told the Connecticut fans that he would keep their program at the top, competing at the highest level.

The fans, who had weathered blizzard conditions to catch the Huskies at the XL Center in their final nonconference game against Washington, gave him a standing ovation.

They cheered wildly for him when he came out at the beginning of the game too.

The youngster from South Central Los Angeles has become a native son in the Nutmeg State.

He had weathered the storms of his initial hire -- earning a five-year contract Saturday -- by proving that he could coach (10-2 record), lead a depleted roster (a scrappy group that has forced turnovers well) and organize a program that is disciplined and takes responsibility in the classroom.

Ollie had to do all of this while coaching a team that knew from day one it couldn’t play in the postseason because of poor Academic Progress Rate scores that have the Huskies banned from the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

His players backed him from the opening practice and delivered a memorable first victory in Germany against Michigan State, surrounding him during a postgame interview. They rallied around him Saturday in his first official victory as the permanent head coach -- a 61-53 win over Washington.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie, Omar Calhoun
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamContract extension behind him, Kevin Ollie coaches Omar Calhoun during UConn's win over Washington.
"It’s because of Kevin," said UConn assistant coach George Blaney of how the Huskies have focused on daily tasks and gotten off to a surprising start despite the postseason ban. "He won’t let them [stop playing with a purpose]."

Ollie, who turned 40 on Thursday, just had the best day of his coaching life. He earned a new deal and won the final nonconference game. And his players couldn’t be happier the pressure is off.

"I’m definitely excited, since Coach Ollie recruited me," said freshman Omar Calhoun, who led Connecticut with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. "I’m relieved."

Junior guard Shabazz Napier said pride is what is driving Huskies players. They aren’t thrilled with the situation, but they are competitors and don’t want to lose -- ever.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar echoed what everyone else has said about Ollie -- that he is all class. He has sought out advice on coaching and building a program from as many sources as possible. Ollie has been a sponge on the subject, never too egocentric to ask for advice. He coveted predecessor Jim Calhoun’s constructive criticism.

Those who covered Ollie in the NBA and in college would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has something negative to say about him -- about as rare a statement as you can make about a coach.

Romar talked about Ollie’s high basketball IQ, was thrilled he got a new deal and wished him nothing but success.

Ollie wears his emotions for everyone to see. He doesn’t hide behind coachspeak. He is raw. He is genuine. He is still a work in progress and relishes in the chance to develop his identity and craft in the field. His work ethic is obvious to those who saw him play at UConn and in the NBA, never a star but always as important a player on the team as anyone who was stuffing the stat sheet.

He was a leader as a player without being the headline. He has become a leader as a coach in a unique situation.

When he walked onto the XL Center court Saturday, he said his legs were shaking with excitement, much as they were 20 years ago when he played at UConn.

The night ended with his infectious smile and his need to thank everyone -- his staff, his players and the fans -- for helping him get to where he is today: the head coach at his alma mater, a dream come true for a kid from South Central LA who had no idea this was ever possible.
Brad Jackson is no spring chicken. At age 60, he's a 27-year veteran of Western Washington, where he won 518 games. He doesn't fit the profile of the young, "sexy" assistant coach brought in to help a program revitalize its system, but in many ways that's exactly what he's expected to do at Washington, where he was hired by coach Lorenzo Romar this offseason.

According to the Seattle Times' Percy Allen, Jackson's main contributions this season will be twofold. The first is installation of his trademark high-post offense, experience that "has made him perfectly qualified to help coach Lorenzo Romar install the read-and-react scheme" at Washington this season. His second responsibility will be scouting.

As it happens, the first team he was required to scout was ... you guessed it, Western Washington, who the Huskies will take on Wednesday night. From the story:
"It meant that I probably didn't have to study as hard," he joked when discussing Washington's exhibition at 7 p.m. Wednesday against his former team, Western Washington. [...] Jackson acknowledged it's been surreal scouting against players he recruited, coached and led to a 31-5 record last season, resulting in a Division II national title. He also knows the Vikings, who return three starters, won't be pushovers like they were in their last game against Washington, a 105-85 Huskies victory in 2008.

"I do not think it will be a situation where they are intimidated or going to be holding back," Jackson said.

"Hey, Brad, where's the scouting report for Western Washington?" "In my brain, coach. It's in my brain."

In any case, it will be interesting to see if Jackson's influence -- or that of former Arizona State assistant Lamont Smith, the other hire Romar made this offseason -- shows any tangible gain on the floor throughout the season. Arguably, Washington's lack of offensive structure last season was its ultimate undoing; too often, UW's possessions turned into pure isolations, or relied on one of a handful of athletic forwards getting an offensive rebound and making a play around the rim. It worked well enough to earn the Huskies the Pac-12 title, but not well enough to get them into the NCAA tournament -- the first time in the expanded tournament era a power-six regular-season champ accomplished that dubious feat. So maybe a little high-low, fundamental, old-school hoops structure is just what the doctor ordered.
In its own way, every offseason trip taken by college basketball programs -- in which a coach and his players go overseas for weeks at a time, bonding and chalking up early practice allowed by the NCAA -- is special.

College basketball players don't get much time (or, you know, money) with which they can take the customary collegiate trip to a foreign country. They don't have the opportunity to study abroad. So when teams go to Italy or Ireland or China, the trip is special. It's a unique experience. I am always jealous. (Although, much as I want to visit China, I am glad I was not with the Georgetown Hoyas last summer. That fight looked terrifying.)

But even by the very cool standards of most foreign trips, what Lorenzo Romar has planned for his Washington Huskies sounds especially neat. Washington will travel for two weeks, making stops in Spain, France and Monaco, which, OK, Eamonn's already jealous again. Monaco? Awesome. But even better -- the last leg of the trip is Senegal, homeland of senior forward Aziz N'Diaye. From the Tacoma News-Tribune:
The Huskies will play a game in Dakar Senegal. But they will also host and take part in several basketball camps and clinics as part of World Vision’s Area Development Program.

“You do home visits with kids when you are recruiting them and you meet parents and have an opportunity to see their world,” Romar said. “In this case, we not only get to see Aziz’s world, but his family and friends get to see the group he has been living with the last couple of years.”

It's a nice touch from Romar, who usually tries to schedule a game in the hometown of seniors. That's not possible for N'Diaye during the regular season, obviously, but the solution Romar found is an awfully nice one.

Note to my bosses: We should definitely be covering this trip! I'll submit my travel request soon. What's that? I'm not going? Well, it was worth a shot.
1. Baylor coach Scott Drew said an NBA draft early-entry decision from Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller will come at some point this week after he sits down and meets with the families. If both were to return then the Bears would be one of the favorites again in the Big 12 and possibly a Final Four.

2. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said Tony Wroten Jr., would likely make up his mind sometime this week, as well. The Huskies lost Terrence Ross to the NBA Sunday when he officially declared for the draft. The Huskies underachieved this season by failing to reach the NCAA tournament despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title.

3. Mississippi State pulled a sleeper out of the coaching carousel when they hired Clemson associate head coach Rick Ray. This was a stunner. But it also shows how difficult a time it is for these schools to lure a high-major coach away from another significant gig, let alone a head coach who is comfortable at a conference outside the power six. Times have changed in coaching as more coaches are content to stay put if they’re winning, compensated well, and have a chance to make the NCAA tournament.

As Washington waits, Beavers believe

March, 8, 2012
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Oregon State had one of the Pac-12's best nonconference wins.

And it was over a middling, young Texas team in overtime in New Jersey.

But that sort of summed up the Pac-12. The league was light on nonconference wins and when its teams got into league play, beating each other up only enhanced the perception that the conference wasn’t worthy of elite status.

Well, heading into Friday night’s semifinals, Oregon State has the best win of the Pac-12 tournament too, knocking off top-seeded regular-season champ Washington 86-84 on Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

[+] EnlargeJared Cunningham, Devon Collier
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireJared Cunningham and Devon Collier, right, have the chops to take Oregon State to the Pac-12 final.
“It’s my best win ever, as a coach or as a player when I was at Princeton,’’ Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said late Thursday night by phone. “This team is starting to believe that they’re as good as we thought they were. It’s really nice to see. This is a watershed moment for these guys. Those guys on Washington are really good.’’

The Beavers (19-13) move into the Pac-12 semifinals against Arizona. Oregon State isn’t on the bubble. Arizona is probably a reach, or at least third in line for a possible bid among Washington and Cal on the at-large candidacy list.

Washington, even with the Pac-12 regular-season title, must now sweat out Selection Sunday.

The Huskies’ nonconference resume has nothing to shout about. The worst home loss -- a blowout to South Dakota State -- might look better now that the Jackrabbits won the Summit League title. But that’s still a team from the Summit going into Seattle and cleaning house.

“I’m not in there in the committee,’’ UW coach Lorenzo Romar said during the postgame news conference. “I know we haven’t won as many games as we should have in nonconference as a league. I would think the Pac-12 champion would be able to find a place in the NCAA tournament. We certainly didn’t help ourselves, but I would think we’d be able to find ourselves in there.

“But I am not on the committee. The committee, they’re meeting, and we’re kind of at the mercy of their decision.’’

As for the Beavers, their defense has tightened up in the two Pac-12 tourney games so far, coming back to beat Washington State and Washington on consecutive nights.

The offense is more than capable of beating Arizona and advancing to the title game if Jared Cunningham, Devon Collier and Ahmad Starks make sound decisions.

“These guys are starting to trust each other,’’ Robinson said. “We were hoping that we could play well in the first game. The way we started to come out I thought we could win.’’

In their one meeting this season, Arizona beat Oregon State in overtime in Tucson. There was a minor scuffle at the end of the game. But there is too much on the line in this one to expect any carryover to Friday.

“I like the fact that we lost to them in overtime,’’ Robinson said. “That bodes well for us psychologically. I like our offense. We haven’t had trouble scoring in either game. But it will come down to whether or not we defend well.’’

Oregon State looked like it had floundered a few weeks ago, losing five in a row. But the Beavers then rallied to sweep a homestand with Utah and Colorado heading into the 8-9 game against the Cougars.

“That gave us some momentum,’’ Robinson said. “You sometimes see with veteran teams they’ll play well in a tournament, but we’re doing it with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and it took them a little while to figure it all out.’’

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

December, 27, 2011
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The Pac-12 only gets more convoluted and confusing with each passing week, but the conference power rankings, like any good Broadway show, must go on. Here's my latest attempt to make sense of this muddled West Coast landscape as the Pac-12 prepares to commence league play this week. (Spoiler alert: The Pac-12 is bad.)

1. Stanford: Surprised? So am I. After all, Stanford's only result since last week's rankings was a 71-66 home loss to Butler, which came after the Cardinal allowed the offensively bereft Bulldogs to streak to a downright shocking 45-point second-half. Considering Stanford has no great wins, and much of its early ranking hinged on that close contest with Syracuse in November, you'd think Johnny Dawkins' team would take a tumble in the conference power rankings. When I sat down to write these rankings, I didn't think Stanford stood any chance of staying in the top spot. But as you dig in to the rest of this league, you realize that Cal remains the only other contender for this spot, and I find it difficult to move Stanford below the Bears when Mike Montgomery's squad was so thoroughly trounced by UNLV last week. So Stanford remains. Someone has to be No. 1, I guess.

2. California: The Bears may well be the best team in this league. Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics indicate as much. But Cal isn't doing anything to inspire confidence that its efficiency in wins over inferior opponents can be replicated against top competition. Consider Friday's drubbing at UNLV. The Bears entered Friday's game having outscored their last four opponents 301-189. Then, in Vegas, Montgomery's squad looked absolutely dreadful -- stagnant offensively, weak defensively and arguably timid in many respects -- as the Rebels blitzed for 40 minutes en route to an 85-68 blowout. This was Cal's second game against a ranked opponent. Its first, against Missouri, ended 92-53. Add it all up, and you get a team that has 10 wins against inferior opponents, one forgivable one-point road loss to San Diego State, and two absolute blowouts at the hands of top competition. So, yeah, maybe Cal is the best team in this league. But if they only look good against bad teams, what does "good" even mean, anyway?

3. Arizona: The Wildcats didn't do much last week, but they'll hold steady at No. 3 if only because they didn't lose. Rather, Zona got past a tricky Oakland team at home and put 100 points on Bryant two nights later, and that -- plus their promising if uneven performances throughout the nonconference schedule -- doesn't offer any obvious reason to move them below any of the teams that follow.

4. Oregon State: OSU is now tied for the best record in this conference, with its 10-2 mark matched only by Stanford. And that record isn't all fluff, either: A Nov. 19 win against Texas might in fact be the best nonconference win the league has (as sad as that is). But since Dec. 9's home loss to Idaho, Oregon's State's four wins have come against Illinois-Chicago, Howard, Portland State and, this week, Chicago State. Those are some of the worst opponents in Division I hoops. For that reason, it's hard to trust that gaudy record, not until the Beavers can test this apparent improvement against someone ranked higher than No. 230 (that would be Portland State) in the Pomeroy rankings.

5. Oregon: The Ducks notched three wins in three days last week, but all three (NC Central, Prairie View A&M, Stephen F. Austin) were cupcakes. Meanwhile, last week's missed opportunity -- when Oregon let Virginia escape from Matthew Knight Arena with a second-half comeback win -- is still a cause for concern. Given Dana Altman's track record as a coach, and the way he got the maximum from his first team in Eugene last season, it's fair to expect some improvement in Pac-12 play. But the Ducks still have a long way to go.

6. Washington: The Huskies looked much sharper in a home win over Cal-State Northridge last Thursday, but really, there's nothing new to report here. The Huskies still look like the most talented team in this league. They should still be considered a favorite to contend for the regular-season crown. Unfortunately, they're still maddeningly inconsistent, confused about their offensive roles, defensively porous and, to paraphrase Washington coach Lorenzo Romar's words, missing that distinct, hard-to-define chemistry all good teams must develop before they can become more than sum of their parts. The talent here is undeniable, but league play starts this week, so the clock is already ticking. This could go either way. We'll see.

7. Washington State: The lack of movement in these rankings is the theme of the week, and Ken Bone's team is no different. The Cougars are getting decent play out of senior guard Faisal Aden and aggressive interior work from junior forward Brock Motum, but they remain sloppy and turnover-prone and have spent their December racking up five wins against decidedly inferior competition. This team isn't bad, per se. But we can't exactly call it good, either.

8. UCLA: If you can't always tell by my tone, yours truly tends to get a little frustrated when teams spend huge stretches of their nonconference schedule toasting cupcake teams. Go out and play somebody, you know? But UCLA's December of inferior competition couldn't have come at a better time. After a November that featured blowout home losses to Middle Tennessee and Loyola Marymount, a disastrous trip to the Maui Invitational and the eventual dismissal of forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA needed some comfortable, confidence-inspiring victories, and it appears to be paying dividends. At the very least, this record -- 2-5 through a Dec. 3 loss to Texas -- is back above .500 in time for the start of Pac-12 play. We don't know if UCLA is actually better, or just beating up on bad teams, but either way, it doesn't really matter. This is why (or at least partially why) coaches schedule so many cupcakes. Sometimes, your team just needs a few wins.

9. USC: Unlike most of the Pac-12, USC actually had an important fixture on its calendar last week, a date with Kansas at the Galen Center in LA. And USC was essentially USC. The Trojans played a slow-paced game and held KU to 63 points, a product of the rapacious defense Kevin O'Neill's team has played so often this season. The only problem with this, of course, is that SC just can't score. The Trojans scored a mere 45 points against the Jayhawks. They rank No. 245 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. You should expect O'Neill's squad to stifle more than a few of their Pac-12 opponents in the coming months, and they'll no doubt steal a few wins against allegedly superior squads between now and March. But this putrid offense is like an invisible ceiling. Without at least some offensive output -- something, anything! -- this team can only go so far.

10. Colorado: The Buffaloes' 7-4 record is better than the Trojans' and Bruins' and the Huskies'. So why does Tad Boyle's team still rank so low in this league? Because unlike those teams, the Buffs don't do any one thing particularly well. For the sake of brevity, Colorado is average offensively and awful defensively. I wouldn't be surprised if this team shows real improvement in the weeks to come, but with per-possession numbers this pedestrian, I'm hesitant to make that prediction.

11. Arizona State: If Herb Sendek didn't have more pressing things to worry about -- namely, how to get his apparently awful team moving in a positive direction -- he could some spend time lavishing everyone responsible for bringing Utah to the Pac-12 (conference commissioner Larry Scott, Utes brass, even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany) with gifts. For yet another week, only Utah's near-historical ineptitude is keeping this Sun Devils squad out of the power rankings cellar. In any other season, we'd look at this team -- now 4-8 with three straight home losses to Northern Arizona, Southern Miss and Fresno State -- as the "worst power-conference team in the country" contender it would have been. Either way, Arizona State is in a bad way, and if the current trend continues into league competition, the nascent questions about the "future of the program" (read: Sendek's job security) will only grow more vociferous.

12. Utah: And then there's Utah. (Last week, I tried on a few alternate, Utah-related headlines for this column. But I think "And then there's Utah" might be our winner.) The good news first: The Utes topped Idaho State and Portland two weeks ago. Wins are wins. The bad news? Both teams are ranked outside the top 225 or so teams in the nation in adjusted efficiency. Even worse, Larry Krystkowiak's team followed those meager signs of progress with an 80-51 road loss to Weber State, a thrashing at the hands of a team that, for reference's sake, lost by 20 to Cal. In the meantime, the 3-9 Utes are ranked No. 316 in the country in adjusted efficiency; the list of teams in their statistical vicinity (The Citadel, Radford, Mount St. Mary's, Texas Pan-American, et al.) is comprised those for whom a trip to the NCAA tournament play-in game is a basketball season's ultimate hope. This is some historically bad basketball coming from Salt Lake City. With Pac-12 play commencing this week, where do the Utes go from here? I don't know. But it could be fascinating to behold.
What's wrong with Washington? It's a fair question. The Huskies are clearly talented -- arguably the most talented team in the Pac-12. They can clearly play with very good teams, as they showed in a thrilling loss to Marquette in Madison Square Garden. Before Sunday's 19-point home loss to South Dakota State, in which Washington gave up 92 points to Nate Wolters and the Jackrabbits (a good mid-major team, but one Washington should easily beat at home), the Huskies had yet to suffer a truly bad loss yet this season. At the very least, every loss was close.

It was easy to look at this team, see some rather promising per-possession numbers, and assume Romar's young players were still just figuring things out. They'd get there eventually, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. The jury is still out. But it must be a bit of a bummer to Huskies fans to hear their coach cite the team's three problems to date, as related by the Seattle Times's Percy Allen. According to Romar, the three issues are as follows:
  1. Defense
  2. Offensive rhythm (particularly movement, spacing and passing)
  3. Chemistry

Hold on. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't those three huge problems?

Of course, Romar isn't wrong. His team has not defended well to date, particularly on the ball, where the Huskies somehow manage to foul shooters frequently while forcing opponents into turnovers on just 18.2 percent of their possessions (which ranks No. 297 in the country, per KenPom (subscription required)). Usually, teams that foul often force turnovers for their trouble. Or vice versa. (No fouls, few turnovers.) The Huskies have somehow inverted that logic, and not in a positive direction.

Let's leave offensive stuff alone, because that looks like the area Romar should expect the most improvement going forward. Despite its struggle and high roster turnover, his team has played pretty well on the offensive end already this season. I wouldn't freak out about that.

But chemistry? That's the kind of vaguely defined quality a coach knows when he sees. If you have it, you can exceed the sum of your parts. If you don't, you may be bound to disappoint. From the Times:
Repairing a broken defense that's allowed 76.3 points per game and getting players to share the ball is easier than improving Washington's sour chemistry, which is the third and arguably most important area of concern for Romar.

It might require shifting responsibilities, redistributing shot attempts among five players who average at least nine points and redefining roles.

"We have not settled on that yet," Romar said. "Who's supposed to be taking shots and where. We're still evolving that way."

These things may come. Washington is still young. It's still incorporating an unfamiliar backcourt of Abdul Gaddy and Tony Wroten Jr., two players whose skill sets don't necessarily align. It's still early in the season. Another down Pac-12 should prove rather forgiving. Perhaps it can be used as a learning lab as well as a full-on competitive environment.

Either way, when you ask a coach what he thinks are his team's three main problem areas, and he says, in so many words, "defense, offense and chemistry," well, no wonder that team is struggling. It's like saying: "Hey, Mr. Engineer, what's the biggest thing holding back your bridge project right now?" "Well, we're still figuring out where to put the cables. Also, the support beams aren't ready yet." In other words: everything.

Even one of the Huskies' issues would be cause for concern. All three are downright discouraging.

Marquette notches dramatic win at MSG

December, 7, 2011
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NEW YORK -- A season ago, Marquette won 22 games and went all the way to the Sweet 16 -- yet was just 4-7 in games decided by 5 points or fewer.

This season is starting very differently, as evidenced by the Golden Eagles’ thrilling 79-77 victory over Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Marquette, ranked No. 11 in the country, is now 8-0 on the season. Coach Buzz Williams was happy with the victory, but not with his team’s play early in the game, nor with himself.

“I thought [Washington’s] energy and their intensity to start the game, we were not able to match. And I think I did a poor job of helping our team when Chris Otule got hurt," Williams said of Marquette’s starting center, who sprained his knee less than two minutes in and did not return; he will have an MRI on Wednesday. "Because that changes how you have to guard ball screens. That changes when and if you’re gonna trap the post, and who you’re gonna trap the post with. And I didn’t think that I handled that very well.

“I thought once we kinda got in a groove, we were better.”

They certainly were. After falling behind quickly 11-2, Marquette rallied back to take its first lead of the game, 27-26, just under 6 minutes before halftime. The Golden Eagles led 37-34 at intermission.

The second half of this game was a classic seesaw battle, with 18 -- yes, 18! -- lead changes. Neither team led by more than 5 (and that was only after Marquette’s first bucket of the second half).

The game came down to the final minute. Washington’s Terrence Ross (team-high 19 points) hit a tough foul-line bank shot to give the Huskies (4-3) a 77-76 lead with 17 seconds left to play. Williams elected not to call a timeout -- he had already gone over a play with his team in a previous timeout, in case Washington scored on the previous possession.

The ball ended up in senior forward Jae Crowder’s hands. “My man showed pretty hard, I got a good screen from Jamil Wilson to pop out to the [right] corner,” Crowder said. “Once that happened, I knew I had a good look at the rim.”

[+] EnlargeMarquette
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesWith its win over Washington at MSG, Marquette improved to 8-0 on the young season.
The shot, from just beyond the 3-point arc, was on the money, giving the Golden Eagles a 2-point lead with 6.3 seconds remaining.

Washington elected not to call a timeout, instead pushing the ball up the floor. Abdul Gaddy’s well-defended desperation heave from the right wing was way off at the buzzer.

“Yeah,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, when asked if he thought about calling a timeout to set up a last shot. “Probably in retrospect, probably would have liked to.”

This is the Golden Eagles’ second win by 5 points or less this season, following a 59-57 victory over Norfolk State in the championship game of the Paradise Jam on Nov. 22.

Marquette was also coming off an impressive 61-54 win at No. 7 Wisconsin on Saturday. Williams admitted that fatigue may have played a role in his players’ struggles Tuesday night, particularly at the start.

Leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom had 23 points, but shot just 6-for-17 from the field. Crowder added 18 points, 16 of them coming in the second half.

“I think we’re whipped,” Williams said.

On the bright side, Marquette -- picked to finish sixth in the Big East this season in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll -- looks like it’s capable of being much better than that, as we inch closer to the beginning of conference play.

Losing Otule for a significant period of time would hurt, to be sure. But this Marquette team is deep -- Williams used 11 players on Tuesday, with seven of them contributing 4 points or more.

There have been some pleasant surprises as well. Among them are freshman Todd Mayo, the younger brother of NBA player O.J. Mayo, who scored 11 points off the bench against Washington, and has scored in double figures in five of the team’s eight games.

There may be some increased competition for playing time in the weeks ahead, and talk of that made Williams grin at the postgame podium.

“Yeah, I like that,” he said. “It’s good. Recruit as many good players as you can, win as many games as you can, and play as many as you can along the way.”

Huskies will go as Tony Wroten goes

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
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Tony WrotenSteven Bisig/US PresswireWashington guard Tony Wroten is showing a lot of promise early in his freshman season.
This summer, at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago, one guard consistently stood out from the rest. He was left-handed. He had good vision, a solid outside shot and a knack for making the well-timed pass to a streaking forward on the break or appropriately deciding to finish the play himself.

At 6-foot-5, he stood taller than most of his fellow guard attendees, all of which were (or were about to be) the best point guards in the country. By the end of the day, he had NBA scouts raving. In a sea of talented-but-too-short point guards, here, finally, was a player with the skills and size to play the position at the next level.

This player was Tony Wroten, Jr.

This college hoops writer, wary of small sample sizes though he is, allowed himself to throw his data-oriented caution to the wind. I was sold: Wroten was going to be great, and the 2011-12 Huskies were going to be better than anyone had reason to expect.

Moreover, Wroten's commitment to Lorenzo Romar's team couldn't have come at a better time. This summer, the Huskies waved farewell to point guard and spiritual leader Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant, left-handed guard who led his team in minutes, points, assists and steals in 2010-11 and won the conference tournament title over Arizona with a floating jumper at the buzzer. With Thomas gone and Wroten in, the Huskies were replacing a very good but undersized lefty point guard with a much bigger, much more naturally talented version -- and a guy with plenty of his own swagger, too.

After seven games, at least one thing is clear: Wroten is every bit as important for the Huskies as Thomas. Maybe even more so.

The question is whether Wroten is ready for that sort of responsibility. On that front, the jury is still very much out.

The freshman guard has had no shortage of opportunities this season. After seven games, per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency stats, Wroten ranks No. 4 in the nation -- to be clear, that's No. 4 out of every college basketball player in the country -- in usage rate. Wroten finishes 35.9 percent of his team's available possessions when he's on the floor; the next-highest of the Huskies, sophomore Terrence Ross, checks in at 21.7 percent.

Wroten has dominated possessions: He brings the ball up the floor and initiates Washington's offense, but he also has the freedom to create for himself whenever he chooses to do so. He takes 28.8 percent of his team's available shots.

The problem? Wroten's efficiency isn't just so-so -- so-so would be good for a player that shoulders this much of his team's offensive load. No, Wroten's efficiency numbers are downright bad. After seven games, the guard's offensive rating, per KenPom, is 86.0. (For comparison's sake, Ross' 118.5, while teammate C.J. Wilcox is among the best in the country at 131.2.) His effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of a 3-point shot) is 46.2 percent. His true shooting percentage (which factors in free throw percentage) is 47.2. Wroten's turnover rate is 27.6 percent.

According to Synergy Sports Technologies data, Wroten has scored 88 points on his 119 possessions this season -- an average of .739 points per possession. Wroten has been much better in transition (27 points on 26 possessions) than he has in the half court, but half-court possessions have accounted for 78.2 percent of his possessions on the floor. His tallies in those trips: 93 possessions, 61 points, .656 points per possession. Synergy's built-in descriptors politely describe this mark as "below average."

Weirdly enough, it's not as if Wroten has been forcing bad jumpers or obviously trying to do more than he's capable of. According to Synergy, 71.4 percent of his shots are "around basket (not post-ups)." Essentially, as the Wroten film backs up, these are drives to the rim. He simply hasn't been finishing. Throw in the close misses with the turnovers, and you have a recipe for severe individual offensive frustration.

Fortunately, there are plenty of positive signs in Wroten's game. Despite all the turnovers, his turnover-to-assist ratio is still positive, because Wroten has been finding open teammates with regularity. (Assist rate: 30.1 percent, which ranks just outside the top 100 nationally.) Wroten has also turned those drives into plenty of trips to the free throw line; he's drawing nearly 7.2 fouls for every 40 minutes he's on the floor (national rank: No. 32).

In the meantime, the Huskies' problems aren't limited to their freshman guard. He isn't the only one turning the ball over, for example. Plus, Romar has said that he's allowed his team to experiment in the first few weeks in order to better find out what he was.
"I've looked at that quite a bit, and obviously that's my fault," he said. "Early on, as you're putting your team together, a lot of times offensively you kind of let the guys play more just to try to find out who can do what when they're actually playing.

"Sometimes you can restrict players and hold them back and you don't know what they are capable of giving you. I kind of let the guys blow it out early on, probably too much. It usually bites us early because we don't do as good of a job offensively as we should do."

That quote came before Washington's loss at Nevada, but it's no less true for the passage of time. It's safe to assume Romar will gradually attempt to tighten Wroten's game, to accentuate the things he's good at -- leading the Huskies in transition, creating matchup problems on the perimeter, penetrating and working toward the rim -- and minimize the problem areas.

There are other caveats, too. Here's a big one: Wroten is still just a freshman. Much like Austin Rivers or Harrison Barnes or anyone else, it's unfair to judge him after four weeks of college basketball. There's a learning curve, and Wroten is on it.

Likewise, it's important to remember that whole small sample size thing. It's just seven games. It's early.

More likely than not, Wroten will finish more of those plays around the rim, improve his efficiency and have a very productive freshman season in Seattle. He'll adjust to collegiate defenses, realize he can't get away with certain things at this level, and cut down on his turnovers in the process. He'll get used to playing with guys like Ross and Wilcox and Abdul Gaddy, and he'll defer more frequently when the shots don't fall. If I had to guess whether Wroten will improve, worsen or perform at roughly the same level all season, I'd bet the house on "improve."

But as early as it is, we do know this much for sure: Few players in 2011-12 will be as important to their teams' success -- or failures -- as Wroten. The Huskies' potential mirrors their silky 6-foot-5 freshman point guard's. They can't improve if Wroten doesn't.

In other words: Stay tuned.

UW scraps scrimmage due to NCAA rule

October, 26, 2011
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Washington cancelled an alumni scrimmage that would have featured the current team playing against NBA players such as Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes because the scrimmage could have been a NCAA violation after coach Lorenzo Romar publicized the event, according to the Seattle Times.
Romar said the game against the alumni would have been the best competition the Huskies faced this season. But he put the scrimmage in jeopardy by talking about them during a pair of interviews Tuesday. And several players also tweeted about the scrimmage, which may have been a compliance issue.

According to NCAA exception 14.1.8.1.6: "A former (student-athlete) at the certifying institution ... may participate in an organized practice session on an occasional basis, provided the institution does not publicize the participation of the former student at any time before the practice session."

The cancellation caused Hawes to tweet that the "NCAA is such a joke," adding, "NCAA should embrace former athletes going back to school and supporting their athletic programs. What harm does it do? Everyone benefits." Recent NBA draft pick Isaiah Thomas took aim at the NCAA as well, tweeting, "NCAA has TOOOOOO many rules... Like too many STUPID rules."

What would have been a fun event for the fans and former players now won't be taking place because Romar discussed the game on the radio. The current Huskies also miss out on playing NBA talent that has been idle during the lockout. The early glimpse of the team in action will have to wait until an exhibition game next week, as Washington tries to get back to the NCAA tournament.

Nobody seems to win in this situation.

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