BY Bob Sherwin 09:44PM 01/04/2011

Coaches: Thomas stirred LA drink

MBA received a lot of attention, but junior guard made the plays that allowed the Huskies to roll in LA, according to the foes’ coaches

Washington guard Isaiah Thomas was the difference-maker in the sweep of the LA schools (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

They weren’t necessarily two stellar games, as numbers go, for Isaiah Thomas in the Huskies’ twin win sweep of the L.A. schools last week.

Regardless, he was indispensable.

Thomas made only one three-pointer in four attempts over two games. He had six turnovers against USC and averaged 13.5 points, two points below his team-high 15.5 ppg.

Even he admitted, “I don’t feel as an individual I played my best.”

That’s one way to look at it. Not the way USC coach Kevin O’Neill nor UCLA coach Ben Howland looked at his week. They agree on one key element  – Thomas as the play-maker was the difference-maker.

“The thing that impressed me the most, I thought Isaiah Thomas was totally under control,” O’Neill said. “He ran the team and made good decisions in both games. That’s why they are an improved team more than anything.”

Howland was impressed that in the first half against his team Thomas had six assists and no turnovers.

“He also does a good job of drawing fouls, as good as anyone at selling getting hit,” Howland said. “He’s a good scorer. He makes good decisions. It’s almost impossible to keep him out of the paint because he is so low to the ground and yet he’s so strong and quick and athletic.”

Thomas, who scored 17 points in the 74-63 victory over the Bruins, finished with nine assists and two turnovers. He made the most impact down the stretch as he was involved in the Huskies’ final 17 points, either as the scorer or providing the assist.

“I told coach (Lorenzo) Romar, give me the ball towards the end of the game. I thought I needed the ball  not just to score, but to make plays. He trusted me with that. I respect coach Romar for that. He put the ball in my hands and I made plays.”

Romar said, “He controlled the entire game for the last eight minutes. Little things that he does, people just take for granted. If he doesn’t have as good of a game, people are quick to criticize. But when he has a really good game, like against UCLA, it’s kind of, ‘That’s what he’s supposed to do.’ I think Isaiah’s talent . . . I don’t want to say is a curse, but people expect so much of him.

“I keep saying he’s a winner.”

Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who averaged 19.5 points, nine rebounds and shot 54 percent in the two games, was named Pac-10 Player of the Week. It was Thomas who delivered that award.

“Everyone knows he can put a lot of points on the board. He has shown that,” Bryan-Amaning said. “But not everybody knows about his playmaking ability.”

***

After the first two conference games, Washington is in the middle of the pack in the scoring categories, but that’s more of a by-product playing two tough defensive road games. The Huskies are not about to fall back to the pack on offense. Scores will drop overall because of conference-play intensity but the Husky offense is still in place and loaded.

Overall, the Huskies have nearly a 10-point scoring edge over all the conference teams and is the only team shooting better than 40 percent (41.2) from three-point range. The offense will reveal itself more this week with Oregon Thursday and Oregon State Saturday.

But if the first weekend of conference play serves as a preliminary guide for the season, the Huskies are going to enjoy some advantages over the rest of the teams.

That includes, of all things, rebounding.

In the 21 various team statistical categories, the Huskies rank either first or second in eight. They are first in scoring defense (65.0), field-goal percentage defense (34.9) and rebounding offense (39.0).

They are second in rebounding margin (+8.5), free-throw percentage (73.9), three-point field-goal percentage defense (21.9), defensive rebounds (27.0) and offensive rebound percentage (36.4).

Seven of those eight categories are either rebounding or defense. And this is a team heralded for its offense.

Since about midway though the pre-conference schedule, Romar has stepped up his emphasis on rebounding, to the point that he changed his lineup and changed his practice drills to demand carom gathering. Then Washington opened conference play with perhaps the two bulkiest front lines in the conference.

They out-rebounded both.

“We’ve always emphasized rebounds. Some days we get the guys’ attention more than others,” Romar said. “But it has a lot of do with (7-foot) Aziz (N’Diaye) in there. Matthews is being more assertive and the guards are rebounding better.

“It can become contagious.”

It caught on in L.A.

***

The wins — just the third time in UW history the Huskies have swept the schools on the road – also earned UW a return to the top 25. The Huskies are listed at No. 23 in The Associated Press poll.

UCLA coach Howland, who lost 74-63 to the Huskies, said the media has penalized the Huskies unfairly in the polls.

“I was a strong supporter of them being nationally ranked,” Howland said. “They lost to Michigan State in a game they could have won. Same thing with Kentucky. They lose to Texas A&M on the road by one and the rest they win pretty much going away until the USC (overtime win) game.

“They have everybody back except their best player (Quincy Pondexter) from a team that went to the Sweet 16. When you have that kind of group coming back from a team that went to the Sweet 16 and won the conference tournament, there is no question they should be nationally ranked. I think it’s a little unfair of the national media not to get that. I think Washington can beat anybody in the country on a given day.”

USC, with its formidable 6-foot-10 forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, still were out-rebounded 44-28 by the Huskies, N’Diaye fouling out after playing just 14 minutes.

The Huskies hung tough with their defense, holding the Trojans to just 34.5 percent from the floor and 23.8 from three-point range.

“We’ve played excellent people in the preseason,” USC coach O’Neill said. “We’ve played at Nebraska, at Kansas, at Tennessee, Texas at home. I thought they (Huskies) were the deepest, more talented team we played. They were hard for us to deal with, their length off the bench. We’re not huge at the guard spots. That gave us problems.”

Can they dominate the league all year?

“As we go forward, you never know if injuries crop up,” he said. “It’s always tough to beat them up there. They’re a team that really feels good about themselves. They play well together. They play hard. They share the ball. For me, they’re doing all the things you need to do to be successful and have a chance to play for a championship by the end of the year.”


YourThoughts

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  • Larry Stonebraker

    Question for Art: I was out of the country for the two Pac 10 wins last week. What is your assessment of Aziz?

    • Art Thiel

      First full season in the big time for him. Doesn’t know his body or the game as well as he needs to. But he will. As with nearly all young big men not named Kareem or Wilt, patience is required.