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Originally published Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Break down what's gone wrong with young Huskies

Six weeks ago, the Washington Huskies were ranked eighth in the nation — according to the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, anyway. Today, they aren't even...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Six weeks ago, the Washington Huskies were ranked eighth in the nation — according to the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, anyway.

Today, they aren't even that high in their own conference, sitting at 11-6 overall, 1-5 in the Pac-10 and in ninth place in the standings — a fall from grace even Tony Romo might find shocking.

"We expected to be one of the top teams in the country," UW freshman center Spencer Hawes said. "But up to this point in the season, we just haven't gotten it done."

And why haven't they?

Here are five possible reasons, one for each Pac-10 loss.

1. They're young

A copout, maybe, but the team's inexperience — there is only one scholarship senior on the roster and the regular starting lineup includes three true freshmen — is an obvious reason for the slow Pac-10 start.

The fact the freshmen were part of a recruiting class considered maybe the best in school history created high expectations. In fact, it was easy to assume they'd be so good, youth wouldn't be a factor and the Huskies could quickly overcome the loss of four key seniors from last year, including NBA lottery draft pick Brandon Roy.

But while there are exceptions to the rule, experience still matters.

Arizona coach Lute Olson made that very case when asked if he was surprised to see Washington at 1-5 with all of its evident talent.

"But it's young talent," Olson said. "When you look at Oregon and Washington State, these are veteran ballclubs and they have good players, but they are that much better because of that experience and their confidence level. They have been there before. I still think Washington, once they get their confidence back and those young guys get experience, they are going to be very good."

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2. They can't win on the road

The Huskies are 0-5 on the road, 0-4 in Pac-10 play, leading to the theory that the young players weren't ready to take on a conference schedule that began with five of seven games on the road, especially after a nonconference schedule with only one of 11 games away from Seattle.

Washington coaches have said the schedule was created to ease a rebuilt team into the season. The only away game was at Gonzaga, which was hoped to be enough to prepare the team for the rigors of the road.

"If we had to do it over again, it probably would have helped us to play one more [road game]," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. "Last year, we didn't play any [nonconference games] on the road and we were 6-3 [in Pac-10 road games]. But that was with a veteran team."

This is not a veteran team, and as Romar said, "You have to learn how to win on the road, that's the bottom line. There is no book you can read, you have to go through it and have some success and then you understand."

3. There's no go-to player to carry the team late

As Romar points out, as bad as the record looks on paper, the Huskies have been blown out only once in Pac-10 play, at UCLA. The other four games were decided by a combined 25 points — two in overtime.

"We've come real close," Romar said. "These aren't games where we just had no chance to win."

In fact, UW led in the final minutes at USC, Stanford and California, but wasn't able to hold on. A year ago in similar situations, Washington would have just handed the ball to Roy to seal the deal. In contrast, the strength of this team is its big men, Hawes and Jon Brockman, but someone has to get the ball to them. Justin Dentmon, the obvious candidate to be the steadying force, late-game ballhandler, seemed to break out of his funk a bit during the Bay Area trip, though he missed a free throw that could have won the Cal game.

4. Their health

The Huskies have played the Pac-10 season with just nine healthy scholarship players. Center Joe Wolfinger and guard Joel Smith are out with injuries, and Harvey Perry has transferred. Smith, a junior who has battled foot injuries, might be back by the Arizona State game Feb. 1. Wolfinger, a 7-foot redshirt freshman, figures to miss the season with a stress fracture.

Smith would give UW another shooter and perimeter defender, and while Romar says it's hard to know what Wolfinger would have added because he's never played a game, "I suspect he would have given us more of a presence inside on the defensive end, and he's a post player who can really knock down shots and possibly offset the pressure defensively on Spencer and Jon."

Also, UW's recent slide coincides with a flu bug Hawes picked up before the Arizona game.

"Things have not gone well for him since," Romar said. "People want to look and say 'it doesn't matter, he's out there on the floor, he should be able to perform.' But that's difficult to do. He'll end up being better [against Washington State on Saturday], but he's not fully recovered yet."

And now freshman forward Quincy Pondexter has a sprained ankle. He was held out of practice Tuesday and might be ready for WSU, but unlikely to be 100 percent.

5. Turnovers

Statistically, the Huskies are the same or better from a year ago in many key categories, such as three-point shooting, assists and rebounding.

One notable exception is free-throw shooting — 74.4 percent last year, 69.9 percent this year, which proved critical late against both Stanford and Cal.

An even more notable area is turnover margin. Last year, UW was second in the Pac-10 at plus-3.21. This year, the Huskies are eighth at minus-1.06.

That, obviously, is a difference of four possessions, which in games decided by just a few points can make all the difference.

The Huskies also are forcing just 5.82 steals this year compared to 8.27 last season, a telling indicator of how the Huskies have evolved from a team whose strength was on the perimeter to one that is now strong inside.

One coach who has seen the Huskies said they don't have the same capability as a year ago to suddenly rip off 10-0 runs because their perimeter players don't apply the same type of defensive pressure as in the past.

"We don't have the wing presence on the defensive end like last year's team," Romar said.

It has all left the Huskies surprisingly staring up not only at the rest of the conference, but at a tough road to get to the NCAA tournament. The only other NCAA tournament team to start out 1-5 in Pac-10 play was the 2003-04 Huskies, who were 0-5 before turning things around.

Romar has recalled that team often in recent days, remembering how it went from the bottom to the top seemingly overnight.

"All of the sudden it clicked," he said. "That's what we are looking for."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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