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Thursday, January 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Huskies have little time left to find a leader

Seattle Times staff columnist

Make no mistake, it's March in January at Washington.

Welcome to Must-Win Madness.

To keep alive their glimmer of hope of making the NCAA tournament's field of 65, the Huskies have to sweep the Oregon schools this weekend.

This is their last chance. Lose one of these two games and the season, or at least the goals that were set for this season, will evaporate faster than you can say NIT.

Somehow, in this one weekend, Washington has to find the cohesion it showed in November when it beat a very good Northern Iowa team. It has to find the fire that helped it in December against Louisiana State.

The Huskies are 1-6 in the Pac-10. They have lost all of their wiggle room.

Once they were ranked ninth in the country. Now they are tied for eighth in the conference.

Today

Oregon @ UW, 8 p.m., FSN

What has gone wrong?

Coach Lorenzo Romar certainly has to shoulder much of the blame.

He raised expectations at Washington to unprecedented levels. Before he arrived, a trip to the NCAA's Sweet 16 was a once-in-a-decade dream come true.

Now, after two consecutive trips into the second week of the madness, the Sweet 16 has begun to feel like a fixture, part of the Huskies' birthright.

But this team, we've now discovered, isn't all that. It isn't as good as the preconference polls. It isn't as smart, as tough-minded, as consistently ready to play as the last couple of Romar teams.

It hasn't won a road game this season, something Romar's teams have been doing with regularity since Nate Robinson led a miracle finish against Oregon State that turned the program 180 degrees three years ago.

This Washington team isn't as good as its three predecessors, but it is better than this. Better than 1-6. Better than the 28-point defeat at Washington State.

The time to prove that, however, is dwindling down to a precious few weekends. The Huskies have to win eight of their last 11 conference games to finish 9-9 in the Pac-10, certainly the minimum requirement for making the NCAA tournament.

That task seems herculean.

This is a team without guards. It doesn't have a point guard. It doesn't get consistent shooting from its two-guards.

Romar overestimated the growth potential of sophomore point Justin Dentmon and underestimated the impact Brandon Roy had on Dentmon.

On a team whose strength is the scoring ability of its big men, Romar has a gaggle of shoot-first guards. Neither Dentmon nor Ryan Appleby has taken care of the ball and neither has been able to regularly find Spencer Hawes or Jon Brockman in the low blocks.

Hawes, in fact, is Washington's best passer.

This is a team lacking leadership.

Romar always has had strong leaders -- Will Conroy, Roy and even Robinson. They were as strong-willed as their coach. No leader has emerged this season.

It shows, most noticeably, on defense.

Washington is shockingly soft defensively. Players don't hit the floor after loose balls. They make the transition from offense to defense slower than Calvin Booth.

Freshman Quincy Pondexter, who has been listed as high as the eighth choice in the NBA's 2008 draft, won't even get drafted if he doesn't step up his defense.

Romar hasn't found a way to motivate this team as he did with his other teams. He hasn't connected with the freshmen, not even blue-chip 7-footer Hawes.

How does he reach this class of teenagers? Does he cajole or kick butt? Does he encourage, or explode? Romar hasn't settled on an answer.

Washington isn't a happy team. It has been playing without spirit. Players haven't supported each other with the kind of steadfastness Washington watchers have become accustomed to seeing.

And now, at the end of January, Washington is in danger of wasting the season of Spencer Hawes. Imagine the Huskies having a 7-foot lottery pick in the middle and still not making the tournament.

That notion would have been unthinkable in November.

Now, unless he has a change of heart and doesn't leave for the NBA draft in June, he has only seven weeks, counting the Pac-10 tournament, to make his college basketball experience feel worthwhile.

This is the week that was.

Romar is facing the biggest coaching challenge of his career. He has to find a way to make his kids play defense. He has to make basketball feel like fun again at UW.

And it all has to start working tonight against the Aaron Brooks-less Oregon Ducks.

Washington has run out of time. Welcome to Must-Win Madness at Montlake.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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