BY Bob Sherwin 06:41PM 12/28/2010

The road has been unkind to the Huskies

UW opens Pac-10 play Wednesday against USC – in L.A.

Washington guard Isaiah Thomas (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

Washington lost three games during the non-conference season – all of them on the road.

When the Pac-10 season begins Wednesday night, the Huskies will open on the road, against USC, followed by UCLA Friday.

This is the time when team leadership is most critical to get the Huskies through hostile environments. Junior guard Isaiah Thomas understands that role.

“I feel like everyone looks at me as the key to what we do,” Thomas said. “If I play the same way I do here (at home) when we win, guys will play the same on the road.”

However, that may be part of the problem for the Huskies on the road. If, indeed, the guys have keyed on Thomas, he has led them off a cliff.

Thomas may be the team’s offensive and spiritual leader, but the road generally has not been kind to the junior guard. He made just 4 of 14 attempts from the floor in the Huskies’ 74-67 loss Nov. 23 to No. 8-ranked Kentucky. The following night against No. 2-ranked Michigan State – a 77-71 loss – Thomas was 4-for-11.

He did play well against Virginia on Nov. 22, making 7-of-11 for 18 points in a 106-63 victory. But in the Huskies’ three road losses – including the 63-62 decision to Texas A&M on Dec. 11 – Thomas made just 10 of 32 from the floor (31.3 percent) and 2-of-11 from behind the three-point line (18 percent).

At home, Thomas is hitting 50 percent of his shots, including 42.1 from behind the arc.

Yet road woes can’t simply be laid at the feet of Thomas. It’s a team thing. The Huskies have a 22.1-point differential between their seven home games (98.7) and their four road games (76.5). That includes a 106-63 victory over Virginia in the first round of the Maui Invitational.

“I think we will be better, but there are a number of different factors on the road,” UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said. “We played far superior teams. That might have something to do with it.”

Yes, two teams, Kentucky and Michigan State, were ranked in the top 10 at the time. Texas A&M’s victory was its 70th straight at home in non-conference games. Those three teams are now a combined 28-7. The rest of the Huskies opponents are 50-51.

“This may sound crazy,” Romar said, “we have a designated guy to inbound the ball but when we were on the road and when the other team made a run, all of a sudden that guy forgets to take the ball out. Little things like that happen.”

The sensory differences, the unfamiliar background, the hostile crowd, the noises, the opponents’ momentum all conspire to get into the players’ heads. It comes down to mind over matter and sometimes it turns to mud. As the chart below indicates, the difference between wins and losses (all three on the road) are striking.

Washington Wins (one road) Losses (all on road)
Scoring average 98.6 76.5
Field-goal pct. 43.6 41.2
3-point pct. 45.2 30
Free throw pct. 61.8 71.4
Rebounds / Total 43.8 33
Offensive Rebounds 16 12.3
Defensive Rebounds 27.3 20.6

The Huskies have shot just 30 percent from three-point range in their losses, compared to 45.2 percent in their wins, seven of their eight at home.

But another big factor is rebounding. All three winning road opponents out-rebounded the Huskies. This is why Romar has been on such a mission to improve his team’s overall rebounding numbers

In addition, assists are down on the road, 14.5 to 22.2 at home, while turnovers are up, 14.6 to 9.9 at home.

“Most of the big hurdles on the road are stuff that we can control, like offensive rebounding,” said freshman guard C.J. Wilcox. “Against A&M, when things started going the opposite way, we started doing stuff we don’t normally do. It’s mental toughness. We have to have that as a team or we’ll keep making the same mistakes.”

Romar has installed special drills in practice designed to help his players function better on the road. Generally, he’ll have his scout team play tight aggressive man defense but at some point he’ll break that off and have them sit back in a packed-in zone, as all three winning road opponents did (and what USC will do).

“That makes it difficult for us to get in there,” Romar said. “In the game you can’t stop it. In practice, we can. Now we see it and we can make the extra pass in practice. I think that’s what’s going to help us because on that road that’s what happens to us.”

He’ll also have referees during scrimmages whistle somewhat unfair calls just so the players learn to play through that.

“Some guys have been nervous, especially in an away environment,” said senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning. “We’ve been harping on these guys to play the same way you play at home. Some times you get baled out of plays by the ref. Just because it doesn’t happen on the road doesn’t mean you change the way you play basketball.”

Some have criticized the Huskies for not playing more road games. They only have had one true road game, at Texas A&M, while the Virginia, Kentucky and Michigan State games were at the Maui Invitational.

This has been the pattern. Last season, they also had just one road game, at Texas Tech (a loss) and one with Georgetown at a neutral court (a loss). In 2008, they had one true road game and two neutral sites games (all losses).

“People say that (more road games), but I totally disagree,” Romar said. “How many road games do you need?

“We went through this last year. By end of year we were winning on the road. We had a team once before that did not have one (non-conference) road game but we still had a winning record in the Pac-10.”

He added that if you check the high profile teams, most have very few, one or none, road games.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have three or four every year,” he added. “One or two is fine. Definitely, you have to have one.”