BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 01/30/2012

Thiel: Young Huskies now Pac-12 men

After 21 games of preaching patience, Romar is seeing the payoff — the Huskies are arguably the best team in the Pac-12. Faint praise, yes, but still . . .

Terrence Ross and his Huskies teammates are getting the idea about physical defense. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress NW

LoRo’s hobos are growing so fast they are leaving stretch marks on Pac-12 Conference basketball.

Not only was the harrowing 69-67 triumph at Arizona Saturday the Huskies’ ninth win the past 11 games, it was the way they pulled it off that awarded them the spurs as arguably the conference’s team to beat.

They won mostly playing seven guys (eight, if Austin Seferian-Jenkins six minutes are included), four of whom had four fouls by the final moments. They missed nine of 16 free throws (Arizona was 21 of 29) and had 15 turnovers. They blew an 11-point lead in the final three minutes. And the star, Tony Wroten, missed 13 of 18 field goal attempts.

Those are dead-team numbers. Washington should have lost by a dozen. Especially at McHale’s Navy (Center) dressed in its all-white weirdness.

But they won. Holy Bob Houbregs.

The Huskies played an unclean game on the road against a good team and still came out all shiny. And on national TV, no less.

“Now we can start to think about making a run to win the league,” said coach Lorenzo Romar, which is a mouthful for him because he rarely talks about team tasks more than those due in the next minute or two.

The reason behind the popping of his buttons was for the virtue that has fewer metrics in the box score and lesser priorities in the minds of teenage hoopsters  — defense.

“I was really happy that we came out right away and played good defense,” he said. “We might have buried ourselves if early we hadn’t.”

Washington jumped on the Wildcats early, survived one pushback and, exhausted, had to hold off another right to the buzzer. To underscore the feat, Wroten’s play of the game this time was defensive — a block of Arizona’s final shot.

But they prevailed. After 21 games, Romar’s hoops preaching has won over some youthful souls.

“Our guys really stepped up and showed a lot of growth and maturity today,” Romar said. “And we did it in the most hostile environment in which we we play.”

Not only have did they win at Arizona State and Arizona for the first time in six years, they won three in a row on the road by holding opponents to 53, 54 and 67 points. Zone or man, inside or out, the Huskies have found a way to apply pressure despite diminished manpower.

Critics can argue that the UW streak is not all that big a deal, because this year the Pac-12 is softer than Jamie Moyer’s fastball, and two of the road wins came weaklings Utah and ASU. Even Arizona was compromised Saturday when key sixth man Kevin Parrom left the game after 10 minutes with a broken foot.

And it’s also fair to say that Washington (7-2, 14-7) isn’t dominating anyone, and failed to beat conference co-leader Cal (7-2,  17-5) at home.

All true. But the point here is that the Huskies are better than they were three weeks ago when they lost at Colorado 87-69, and especially six weeks ago when they lost to South Dakota Freakin’ State at home. It really doesn’t matter what’s happening with the rest of the league compared to what’s happening on the practice floor at Hec Ed.

Romar knew with seven freshmen on the roster, the first half of the season would be a chore. As much as he had to learn who could play, he had to learn who couldn’t play — yet. That means he has to do all he can to keep from using youngsters Shawn Kemp Jr., Martin Bruenig and Hikeem Stewart in key situations. Doesn’t mean they’re terrible, only that they’re not up to the college game yet.   And adding Seferian-Jenkins at midseason from the football team is only at the edges of its payoff.  With C.J. Wilcox returning to health, Romar seems to have an eight-man rotation that makes up for its lack of seniors (zero) with energy and a willingness to conform.

Romar has offered up the admonition of patience so many times that fans, media and even some of his players got tired of it. But as usual, he was right.

Washington remains a work in progress but no longer is a work-around. They can play to strengths instead of playing to hide weaknesses.

They have nine conference games left, and there will be more losses. But it’s now up to opponents to beat them, instead of the Huskies beating themselves. In a balanced, albeit mediocre, conference, that’s a big deal.

Just ask all those sun-kissed Tucson fans with the long faces.


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