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Originally published March 14, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 15, 2011 at 12:05 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Huskies thrive by developing a balanced roster

With a roster full of above-average recruits likely to stay through their senior seasons, Washington is thriving, year after year.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Friday

UW vs. Georgia @ Charlotte, N.C., approx. 6:45 p.m., Ch. 7

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Call it a Nine Lives season.

The most remarkable aspect of this zigzag Washington men's basketball team is also the most understated. For the past 20 games, the Huskies have maintained a high standard despite having only nine scholarship players available. Usually, you can barely tell they're so thin. They actually won the Pac-10 tournament with just eight players. They have depth even though they don't have depth.

They're far from the best team in this NCAA tournament, but it's impossible to find another squad with better balance. They're an intriguing product of smart recruiting and underappreciated player development.

Tested in every way this season — injuries, unexpected struggles, considerable lineup shuffling and a controversial off-court issue — the Huskies still enter the Big Dance playing their best basketball and feeling confident that their preseason goals are still attainable.

Certainly, they stumbled. They should've played consistently enough to be a top-four seed instead of a No. 7. But it's also amazing that a team so seemingly delicate didn't shatter amid all of the chaos.

Washington has nine lives, and it has needed every one of them to survive. It's a credit to coach Lorenzo Romar and his staff that the roster, even while limited, is flexible enough to adjust and handle the trauma.

The Huskies have the right approach, and it starts with recruiting. They haven't landed many of the high-profile, potential one-and-done superstars they've pursued, but the program might be more stable because of that. With a roster full of above-average recruits likely to stay through their senior seasons, Washington is thriving.

But it's more than that. The coaches are finding the right fits for their up-tempo system, and they're recruiting players with the proper mentality to progress gradually.

"If you have a guy that doesn't want to put the work in, it doesn't matter how good they are," Romar says. "That's where you start. At that point, the stars in front of a guy's name, that's irrelevant. If we're recruiting a five-star guy who thinks he's arrived and a three-star guy who really wants to work, give me the three-star kid. Because once you put that three-star guy in the system, have him play in games and go through hundreds of practices, he might wind up being better than that five-star guy."

Make no mistake, the Huskies recruit good talent. Eight of their 12 scholarship players were consensus top-100 recruits. The others — Justin Holiday, C.J. Wilcox, Venoy Overton and junior-college recruit Aziz N'Diaye — have shown that they were underrated. The Huskies have only one player who was a top-20 prospect coming out of high school (injured point guard Abdul Gaddy), but they do a great job finding the right players and putting them in a position to succeed.

"You have to give the coaches a lot of credit because, every year, guys are getting better, adding new things to their games," said senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, a former top-50 recruit who recently was named the Pac-10's most improved player. "Then, when you're a senior and you show that you've learned the system, Coach will give you more freedom."

It's not just a four-year development anymore. The Huskies have benefitted from using redshirt years throughout Romar's tenure. That extra year of growth has been especially helpful to this current group. Darnell Gant and Wilcox are former redshirts playing huge roles. The Huskies will add another next season when current redshirt Desmond Simmons takes the court.

Romar didn't recruit those players anticipating they would sit out a year. But that's how it has worked out, and the Huskies are better for it. Gant, a junior, started as a redshirt freshman. Wilcox is doing the same now.

"I don't think we've ever recruited a player where we said, 'We want you to redshirt,' " Romar says. "Some of the kids have brought it up themselves, and we've decided it's in their best interests to redshirt. If I had a son and he was not a lottery pick, I would demand and insist that he redshirt.

"I've never, ever, had a guy in his fifth year say, 'My only regret is that I redshirted.' Never."

Romar also isn't afraid to sign a recruit who needs to play a fifth year of high school basketball. Isaiah Thomas did that for academic reasons. Guard Andrew Andrews, one of the Huskies' fall signees, plans to do the same.

Whether a player redshirts, goes to a fifth-year prep school or plays right away, the Huskies normally get the most out of them. From Will Conroy to Brandon Roy to Quincy Pondexter to Holiday, Romar's tenure is full of examples of this. Nate Robinson left after his junior season, having developed into a first-round NBA draft pick. Justin Dentmon became an all-Pac-10 performer as a senior after, much like Bryan-Amaning, grinding through an up and down first three seasons. Jon Brockman, who was a McDonald's All-American, stayed all four years, improved and exited as a leader who built a bridge between the Roy era and this current one. The list goes on and on. There are too many success stories to tell in one column. Seldom does Romar recruit players who have empty careers.

Only Robinson and Spencer Hawes have left school early for the NBA, but Romar doesn't have a bias against those kinds of players. He wants the most talent he can get — one and done, two and out, three and flee, four and flourish.

He'll need to win a few more high-profile recruiting battles to make it to a Final Four and win a national title. Perhaps Garfield High signee Tony Wroten Jr. is that revolutionary guy. Still, even if Wroten doesn't experience immediate success, chances are Romar will get the best out of him eventually. It's what the Huskies do.

Such player development has created a kind of balance that the Huskies have used for survival this season.

Nine lives? Not an issue. This program is quite resourceful.

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

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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