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Originally published Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

Without good guards, Huskies will fall short

The edge vanishes so quickly. Two years ago, the Washington Huskies were one possession from the Elite Eight. Last year, they were celebrating...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Wednesday

Washington vs. California

at Los Angeles, 6 p.m., FSN

The edge vanishes so quickly.

Two years ago, the Washington Huskies were one possession from the Elite Eight.

Last year, they were celebrating a recruiting class hyped as revolutionary.

Now, they are watching their mercurial junior guard dribble the ball off his foot with a victory at stake.

"I was either going to draw a foul or get a shot at the basket," Justin Dentmon says of that ill-fated play in Saturday's double-overtime loss to Washington State.

Vision and execution aren't always related. With annoying repetition, the past two seasons have emphasized that point.

The questions persist. What's wrong with the Huskies? Has coach Lorenzo Romar lost his touch? Did he ever have a touch? Is sustained basketball success even viable at Washington?

Theories for the Huskies' plunge range from losing ace assistant Ken Bone to Portland State, to losing an irreplaceable class of determined trendsetters, to losing the team's identity in recent recruiting classes.

Well, at least we are in agreement on the losing part.

Their flaws aren't fatal, just infuriating. Their raw talent suggests they should be better. Inexperience hinders them to an extent, but with two seniors and three juniors providing significant contributions, they aren't that young.

Last month, Romar admirably assigned all the blame to his mismanagement (though the problem is deeper), and the next day, the Huskies played their finest game of the season in a 10-point victory over UCLA.

That breakthrough snapped a four-game losing streak that included two home blowouts, an atypical occurrence for Romar's teams. Since the coach's confession, Washington has cobbled together its best stretch of basketball this season. Still, the Huskies are only 4-4 in that span.

In their last two defeats, they have lost road games by three points to Stanford and Washington State, both Top 25 teams. Nevertheless, the progressive efforts in those contests couldn't shield the disappointing way the Huskies faltered.

They missed 9 of 16 free throws against the Cardinal, another inexplicably unfocused display for a team that shoots 58.8 percent (340th out of 341 teams in Division I) from the line.

Saturday's thriller with WSU must've felt more like a cliffhanger for the Huskies. They're still waiting to make the dramatic play that wins the game.

For mediocrity whittled down to a single possession, we go back to Dentmon dribbling off his foot. It happened with the game tied near the end of regulation. The Huskies had a timeout, but Romar chose to let his players play.

Dentmon drove to his right, noticed poor spacing and motioned for his teammates to clear the area. They didn't move quickly enough, so he drove into traffic, and with one errant bounce, the ball was in Washington State guard Kyle Weaver's hands.

Fortunately for Dentmon, Weaver missed a last-second toss, sending the game into overtime. But that play illustrates the biggest problem the Huskies have. They lack a standout playmaker on the perimeter.

They haven't had one since Brandon Roy left campus two years ago. Consider that, without Roy, the Huskies have a 3-10 record the past two seasons in games that either went into overtime or were decided by five points or fewer.

Their record in such close games during Roy's senior season: 7-4. And in the year before that, when the Huskies had their full complement of program changers, they finished 6-1 in nail-biters.

Spotty guard play has been a major burden. It is particularly evident now that the Pac-10 has been infiltrated by coaches with grinder philosophies. The games are slower, closer. Every possession has become valuable. It's not a good time to be without reliable playmakers.

Dentmon was supposed to fill that role by now, but he remains erratic. Ryan Appleby is just a spot-up shooter, and Venoy Overton is just a freshman, and Tim Morris is just a role-player. Quincy Pondexter was expected to do some damage on the wing, but he's been less productive as a sophomore than he was as a freshman.

So the Huskies have Jon Brockman, one of the best big men in the nation, with uncertainty surrounding him. Now, a day before the Pac-10 tournament, Brockman is nursing an ankle injury. This would be a good time for the perimeter players to surprise us.

I can see the Huskies returning to the NCAA tournament next season, but only if they discover some guards who can manage games effectively and spur the defense. There are no Roy clones out there, for certain. The solution will likely involve the maturation of Overton, who could be a good one, and the boost of an incoming freshman. Scott Suggs? Isaiah Thomas?

After witnessing Romar's Huskies explode into significance with an aggressive small-ball approach, who would've thought they would happen upon this odd predicament: good bigs, bad smalls.

The solution lies with the little guys. The Huskies need them to rediscover their edge.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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