Huskies' little guards step into big time
Washington's little backcourt has made a big impression this season, with Justin Dentmon, Venoy Overton and Isaiah Thomas making huge contributions for the Huskies men's basketball team despite their diminutive stature.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Brewer's best backcourts
1. Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, North Carolina
Comment: Lawson is the best point guard in the nation, and Ellington is a deadly clutch shooter for the No. 1 Tar Heels.
2. Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews and Dominic James, Marquette
Comment: James is out for the season with an injury, but McNeal and Matthews could still lead Marquette to the Sweet 16.
3. Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton, Washington
Comment: Despite all being under 6 feet, they have managed to thrive defensively.
4. Devan Downey and Zam Frederick, South Carolina
Comment: High-scoring guards have the Gamecocks back in the NCAA tournament picture.
5. A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson, Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Comment: Dyson is now out for the season with an injury, but the Huskies' championship hopes will still come down to whether this talented backcourt supports a dominant frontcourt.
Never a hostage of stodgy, purist hoops thought, Lorenzo Romar has become an expert on clever winning.
The Washington coach made it to his first Sweet 16 with a starting lineup featuring four perimeter players. The next year, after losing three of those starters, he returned to the Sweet 16 using a more pro-style, play-off-the-superstar approach, with Brandon Roy serving as maestro and playing string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. But this season, Romar and his assistant coaches may have reached their savvy apex.
The Huskies have made their biggest impression by thriving with the littlest backcourt.
If you stacked their three best guards — starters Justin Dentmon and Isaiah Thomas and sixth man Venoy Overton — they might be able to reach the cookie jar. They're all under 6 feet, but as the Huskies have glided through 22 victories in their past 26 games, they've become far better than much improved, or a pleasant surprise, or even a joy to watch. Here's an even stronger label:
A candidate for best backcourt in the nation.
They're not the best, but they belong in the conversation. Aside from the North Carolina combo of Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington and the Marquette trio of Jerel McNeal, Wes Matthews and Dominic James (now injured), the Washington trio is at least as good as any other set of guards.
As usual, there's little national hype for the Huskies. Still, this backcourt has proved to be elite.
"We're different than other guards," Thomas said. "We're not scared of anything. We're going to come at you. And we do it a lot different than other guards. We play defense. That's something we're going to bring every game, no matter if we're having a bad shooting night or a good shooting night. We're going to mess around and be one of the best in the country."
Mess around some more, I.T. It's working, obviously.
Actually, their success has been more than happenstance. Romar did some serious research last summer before deciding Washington could win with such a small lineup.
During the 2004-05 season, he earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament with Will Conroy and Nate Robinson, an undersized duo, at point and shooting guard. Robinson was only 5-9, but Conroy was 6-2, which made him big enough to handle most guards. In addition, that team had Roy, Tre Simmons and Bobby Jones to play against bigger backcourts.
These Huskies? Freshman Elston Turner Jr., who is 6-4, plays about 13 minutes a game, but some of his playing time comes at small forward. Mostly, the Huskies are left with the three little guards.
"I was a little concerned as I looked at our team," Romar said of his preseason thoughts. "If it happened that the smaller guards were really playing well, and we had to play them together, how could we do it?"
The coaching staff discussed strategies. Romar also called several coaches, including Oregon's Ernie Kent, who made it to the Elite Eight two years ago with the mini-backcourt of Tajuan Porter and Aaron Brooks. Mostly, Romar asked those coaches how they managed defensively and whether the offensive advantages outweighed the, um, shortcomings on the other end.
"The conclusion that I think I've drawn is I don't think it's the ideal situation," Romar said. "But you can present more problems, sometimes, with a smaller backcourt if they're quick and tenacious."
Dentmon, Thomas and Overton are nothing if not quick and tenacious. Their aggressive mentality has helped them overcome some of their careless turnovers. They're an odd group in that only one of the three, Overton, is a pass-first guard, and he often plays out of control. But it has worked because they've been willing to share the ball and the minutes, and their skill sets are complementary.
"I call us the Triple Threat," Dentmon said.
Dentmon is the shooter. Overton thrives on defense and penetrating. Thomas is the all-around offensive weapon, with his ability to create his own shot and willingness to make other players better.
"People look at the three of us and say, 'Ah, they're short. They can't do it,' " Thomas said. "But we bring it. We're feisty. We're scrappy."
Add another adjective to the mix: dominant. Their quickness is the biggest reason the Huskies have attempted 228 more free throws than their opponents.
After two years of shoddy backcourt play, Washington has found a nice complement to Jon Brockman. And as the Triple Threat enters tournament play, they're heartened by a college hoops truism.
Good guard play trumps all in March.
Said Dentmon: "People are about to see how good we really are."
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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