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Originally published Wednesday, November 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball | Four fab freshmen

Quincy Pondexter knew before anybody. "I had the media scoop," he says with a laugh. And what he had learned in September 2005 — the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Quincy Pondexter knew before anybody.

"I had the media scoop," he says with a laugh.

And what he had learned in September 2005 — the news that not only was he heading to the University of Washington, but so was Spencer Hawes — could have made him a bundle if he had started his own recruiting Web site.

Hawes, a center from Seattle Prep regarded as one of the top recruits in the nation last year, didn't make his commitment to UW public until the following month.

But when Pondexter, a swingman from Fresno, Calif., who was also considered an elite national recruit, visited UW in September and began talking with Hawes, "I just kind of knew that he was coming. That made my decision a lot easier."

Between the time Pondexter and Hawes made their intentions public, another highly regarded player, forward Phil Nelson from McNary High School in Keizer, Ore., also decided to become a Husky.

Combined with a commitment earlier that spring from Adrian Oliver, a combo guard from Modesto, Calif., it gave the Huskies maybe the best haul of recruits in school history — all were judged as top 100 recruits in the nation by somebody, with Hawes and Pondexter among the top 30.

And it set up some huge expectations.

Each will play a significant role this season, with Hawes and Pondexter likely to start. And their arrival is the biggest reason most analysts expect little drop-off in the Huskies despite the loss of four seniors, including All-American Brandon Roy, from last season's Sweet 16 team.

"It definitely puts some pressure on us to come in and perform right away," Hawes said. "The expectations that people have for us as a group are pretty high right now. But I don't want to say that by any means they are too high or they are not realistic, because I think that with the talent we have coming in, [those expectations] are definitely reachable.

"That just sets the bar that much higher that we need to achieve and that we need to push ourselves to be."

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It's left to coach Lorenzo Romar to try to temper the heady talk with just a touch of realism.

Romar has heard the chatter that, with all the rampant early departures for the NBA, college basketball is now a game in which everybody is young.

Just look at Florida winning the national title with four sophomores and a junior starting.

"But they weren't as young as we are," said Romar, noting UW also has two other redshirt freshmen and three sophomores. "What people don't understand is that this team is really young. Young and green. We have just four, five guys on the entire team that have played with one another, played on the road.

"Now I'm not saying we can't be a really good team. But I don't think you can mail the season in, either, and say it's a given, because we've got a lot to learn."

But if Romar has had a group of freshmen he figures will pick things up quickly, this is it. The word he has used most often to describe this team is "compliant," saying all they ask is what do the coaches want them to do next.

"I think it will be a fun group to watch," he said.

It's a group that also seems made to order for what the Huskies needed — a highly skilled center (Hawes), two swingmen (Nelson and Pondexter) and a shooting guard who can also play the point (Oliver), to join a nucleus headed by a sophomore power forward (Jon Brockman) and point guard (Justin Dentmon).

Romar, though, says the Huskies didn't necessarily plan it that way.

"What we look for are players who are versatile and can go out and make plays," he said. "That's what we look for more than position, guys who are versatile. We definitely needed someone inside, but we also knew that we were going to have Bobby Jones and Brandon Roy graduate and we needed versatility to replace those guys, as well."

But while the class officially came together last fall, it was almost three years in the making.

A short time into his first season as coach in the fall of 2002, Romar ran into former Husky Steve Hawes at a football game. Steve Hawes played at UW from 1970 to 1972 and was voted a few years ago as one of the top 10 players in school history.

With Steve Hawes that day was his nephew, with whom Romar hit it off immediately.

"I saw this kid, real skinny, about 6-2, 6-3, who was going to be a freshman [in high school] and it was Spencer," Romar said. "We talked and he had an engaging personality even at that time."

A year or so later, then-UW assistant Ken Bone, who knew the Hawes family well, told Romar, "Spencer Hawes is really starting to turn it on and become a player."

"At that time it was just kind of fun because who knew he would become the player that he is," Romar said. "I thought, 'I like that kid. It's fun he's doing well.' Well, we know the rest."

Pondexter was another player Romar saw for the first time as a freshman in high school, through yet another connection. Romar knew Pondexter's father, Roscoe, a former star at Long Beach State.

"Coach Bone got on him early and did a good job of staying in touch and making sure they knew of our interest," Romar said.

The Huskies initially ran across Nelson while recruiting Artem Wallace. The two played on the same AAU team, and UW assistant coach Jim Shaw, who has long ties to Oregon, helped further the relationship.

Oliver, the first player officially in the class, was the last one the Huskies really saw, with Romar making a trip to see him play during the spring of Oliver's junior year. Oliver was hurt at the time, so Romar made a special trip a week later to see him again.

"After watching him for a minute I thought, 'There is nothing he can't do,' " Romar said. "Right there that day, we knew we wanted him."

Oliver had an offer from Kentucky, but decided to take UW's almost the minute it came, sold largely by Romar.

Pondexter had long wanted to play for Arizona — Wildcats coach Lute Olson coached both his father, Roscoe, and uncle, Cliff, at Long Beach State. But when Arizona got a commitment from Chase Budinger, also a swingman, Washington became Pondexter's choice ahead of other offers from the likes of Connecticut and Memphis — after his official visit and his talk with Hawes.

Nelson never considered the Oregon schools, and chose UW over Georgia Tech and Gonzaga — one of the few players recruited hard by both of the in-state powers in recent years — saying, "I wanted to get away from home, but not too far."

Despite Pondexter's confidence, the Huskies had to sweat out a visit by Hawes to North Carolina the week before he made his decision. But home won out, especially because that also meant he could play for a rising program. Hawes has said Washington wouldn't have likely been an option in the pre-Romar days.

To varying degrees, the four knew of each other before they arrived. Oliver and Pondexter, each from the central California area, have played against each other for several years. Oliver and Pondexter, and Oliver and Nelson roomed together at different summer camps, and Hawes and Pondexter played against each other on the summer circuit.

All arrived in June to get an early start on school and working out, with Hawes' mother, Lisa, sometimes inviting some of them over for meals. "Just by doing stuff off the court helped us bond a lot faster and helped the adjustment," Oliver said.

Hawes' knee surgery last month means the four didn't make their first appearance on the court together until Monday's practice.

And the Fab Four might not be together long.

Though Huskies fans can hope Hawes might like it well enough to stick around awhile, many around the program think he's probably gone after this season. Hawes has said he might have headed straight for the NBA had that league not enacted new rules requiring players to be a year out of high school before entering the draft.

"It's definitely on my mind," Hawes said. "It's hard not to think about that. It's your dream. But right now, I'm not worried about it. That will work itself out."

Until then, there are some expectations to fulfill.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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