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Originally published Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

UW can only hope for better mix next year

Five months ago, with all the foresight and foolishness of a long-suffering baseball fan at spring training, we — OK, I — declared this might...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

LOS ANGELES — Five months ago, with all the foresight and foolishness of a long-suffering baseball fan at spring training, we — OK, I — declared this might be the best year in history for college basketball in our state.

Gonzaga would be in the NCAA tournament, as usual. Washington State would be back, too. And Washington, with lots returning from a 19-victory team last year, could be there as well.

Gonzaga? Book it.

WSU? Right on schedule.

Washington? Well, like that baseball fan, wait till next year.

Wednesday night at Staples Center, the Huskies became the first team to check out of the Pac-10 tournament, falling to Cal, 84-81.

It happened when 6-10 Ryan Anderson showed why he made first-team all-conference, cajoling an awkward three-pointer into going in with 41 seconds left.

The Huskies are left with a future in a lesser postseason tournament than their coach, Lorenzo Romar, got Huskies faithful used to a few years ago.

Without their best player, war horse Jon Brockman, the Huskies did nothing to shame themselves against Cal — putting out, playing hard, believing in a miracle run.

"Gutty effort tonight," somebody said to Romar in a hallway.

"Still," he said, agonizing over the dissipation of a second-half lead, "up 12 ... ."

Whatever happened here, or happens in the next fortnight in the postseason, can't conceal that in the past two years, the Huskies have this disjointed quality about them, players coming and going, stock of players ebbing and flowing. It suggests that Washington has, at least temporarily, lost its compass.

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"It's been a little bit of mixing and matching, that type of thing," Romar said reflectively. "We've tried to work through it. I think we've learned a lot in the process. And I think it's a group that's been able to grow together to where now, dividends will begin to pay off."

The hairline loss dropped Washington to 3-11 the past two seasons in games decided by five or fewer points or in overtime.

Those two years, of course, coincide with the 2006 departure of Brandon Roy, and if we didn't fully appreciate Roy's immense contribution, we do now, as he guards LeBron James and makes an NBA all-star team. Along with Roy went Bobby Jones, a tough "glue" guy who would make any club better.

Those final three full Roy years — taking away his academically truncated freshman season — yielded a 74-25 record. In the past two, Washington is 35-29 and 15-21 in the Pac-10.

Now every program outside the heart of Tobacco Road undergoes ups and downs. It's just that the sag attaching itself to the Huskies has seen a churn of players and seemingly, of intentions.

Phil Nelson and Adrian Oliver left and Spencer Hawes was out after dipping his toe into the program for a year. Joel Smith, so promising as a freshman, had eight points Wednesday night but has mostly seemed an afterthought. Justin Dentmon stagnated considerably after emerging as a freshman.

Quincy Pondexter came in, and as a freshman, murmured about an early entry into the NBA. Most of the time, that has seemed preposterous, but he was a force against Cal with 23 points and nine rebounds.

After the Huskies transitioned to the mash-it-in, Hawes-Brockman tandem a year ago, they were going to push the pace more this year. But they're averaging 73 points, compared with 76.5 with Hawes.

Asked why a return to the up-tempo style didn't work out, Romar said, "I don't think we had the personnel to be able to do that. If you want to play fast, you better have finishers on the other end."

Following a 96-71 debacle Dec. 1 at Oklahoma State — a team that won't be in the NCAA field — the Huskies rededicated themselves to defense, leaving observers to wonder if that was a notion that only began to occur to them in Stillwater.

And so, the season lurched along: Five straight nonleague wins, three successive losses in the Pac-10, another three straight wins, another four consecutive defeats. And then a win over UCLA.

Romar is a classy guy who built himself considerable capital during the Roy years. Next season will tell us a lot more about whether the Huskies can return to that rarefied neighborhood, or whether that era was more about Roy than Romar.

"We're a little in-between this year," Romar said, talking style. "We're not quite there to be able to play fast, and I think we put ourselves at a disadvantage if we grind it out. I think we'll be able to play a lot faster next year."

That's when guards Scott Suggs, Elston Turner and Isaiah Thomas show up as freshmen. In other words, wait till next year.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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