Washington's Justin Dentmon finally gets back to NCAA tournament
Now senior guard has to shake late-season slump to help Huskies advance.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — Washington guard Justin Dentmon is not only back in the spotlight of the NCAA tournament, but also again feeling the glare of the doubters.
The player who was as big a reason as any for Washington's success this season has hit a little rough patch as UW enters the postseason. And he knows that's one reason some wonder if this is a team truly built for a long March.
"It's made me have a big chip on my shoulder to prove that we are not going to come out and lay down," Dentmon said of hearing predictions of UW's imminent demise in the tournament, which begins for the Huskies with a game today against Mississippi State in the first round. Tipoff is approximately 2 p.m.
Dentmon is one of two Huskies who have significant NCAA tournament experience, having teamed with Jon Brockman in 2006 to help lead UW to the Sweet 16. He remembers it as the best playing experience of his life, particularly when he led a comeback in the second round to beat Illinois, his home-state school that had let him get away.
Still, he says, "It's different [this time]. Coming in as a freshman you are just overwhelmed. Now I'm out here on a mission to do something."
It was Mission Accomplished during the regular season for Dentmon, who rebounded from two tournament-less seasons to lead the Huskies' revival to the top of the Pac-10. As UW's program sank to mediocrity the past two years, so too did Dentmon's career careen off-course. A starter as a freshman and sophomore, he started just eight games last season.
But an offseason rededicated to polishing his game, and a shift to a shooting-guard role to work alongside freshman Isaiah Thomas at the point, turned Dentmon into one of the revelations of the Pac-10 season. He averaged a career-high 15 points, made the all-conference first team and was named the conference's most improved player.
"Phenomenal," said UW assistant coach Cameron Dollar. "Absolutely phenomenal. No question he played a key role in us being successful this year."
At the midway point of the season, when he was averaging 19 points in conference play, there was talk of Dentmon being the conference's player of the year.
But that chatter cooled along with Dentmon's shooting percentage the second half of the season. In fact, in the past seven games Dentmon has averaged just 11 points, hitting 23 of 70 shots (7 of 32 on three-pointers).
Washington coaches say opponents shifted their defenses to pay more attention to Dentmon.
"He was hitting bombs," Dollar said. "He was hitting deep threes there in the beginning, and you [opposing defenses] wouldn't go out there. So now you adjust, you extend your defense and go out there."
Dentmon cites a couple other factors.
"I think that's because I've been forcing the issue," Dentmon said. "I've been shooting out of rhythm. Usually they drive and kick it to me and I get my feet set. Lately it's just been me trying to create my own threes, which I shouldn't be doing. Coaches have been telling me that's a low-percentage shot so I've got to get better shots from the outside and attack the rim."
Coaches say Dentmon hasn't been alone. Thomas has also seen his shooting and scoring numbers dwindle — he's averaging 12.6 points the past eight games and hitting 36 of 93 shots.
"They're not getting as many easy looks, that's for sure," Dollar said. "And then they've got to take better shots."
Indeed, the plan is to be aggressive and penetrate, despite the presence of Mississippi State shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado, and start getting to the free-throw line more. UW shot 30 or more free throws in seven of the first 13 Pac-10 games but hasn't shot 30 in a game since.
"Everyone on our team is going to be attacking," Dentmon vowed, adding, "I think we'll be fine if everyone plays together and doesn't care who gets the credit."
That's one of many lessons Dentmon has learned during his time at UW, not all of the lessons related to basketball. He also needs just one spring class to complete a degree in art, and last year was named the team's 101 Club Scholar/Athlete Award winner, in part for succeeding in the classroom despite battling a form of dyslexia he was diagnosed with as a sophomore in high school. He says he might want to become a sketch artist for the FBI one day.
Today, though, he just wants to draw up a winning game plan.
"My adrenaline is rushing," he said, standing in UW's locker room Wednesday. "I just can't wait to play."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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