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January 12, 2006

UW in urgent search for its identity on L.A. trip

The coming-of-age story has long been a staple of Hollywood screenplays. As the Huskies are forced from the den into unfamiliar territory for the first time this season, the scene is set for their Pac-10 road initiation in Los Angeles. They have breezed through their golden-child phase with an 11-0 record and a No. 7 ranking, untested and unblemished. Like an awkward young teenager, they have stumbled twice in three conference games with mood swings and uneven efforts, exposing some acne and self-doubt. Dim the lights and pull up a chair because the Dawgs are about to find out who they really are with this trip to Southern Cal and UCLA.

Following the disappointing loss to Washington State, the Huskies (12-2, 1-2) head south with a touch of an identity crisis. Are they the aggressive, 90-points-a-game carnivores who devoured the easy non-conference schedule for the school's best start in 30 years and their highest, albeit dubious, ranking in 22 years? Or are they a possibly one-dimensional squad that is allowing a conference-high 70 points a contest, having given up career-high scoring days to Arizona's Hassan Adams (32 points) and Mustafa Shakur (23), and the Cougars' Josh Akognon (27) and Kyle Weaver (19) in the recent home losses?

"Until we all get on the same page, we're going to be a below-.500 team in the Pac-10," cautioned Brandon Roy Saturday in a post-game media room that felt as gloomy as the weather. Roy's 27 points in 26 whistle-plagued minutes couldn't mask the fact that they sputtered after his fourth foul with 15:14 remaining. With a gimpy Bobby Jones noticeably quiet until the waning moments (only one first-half point) and Jamaal Williams missing-in-inactivity (zero points in six second-half minutes), the Huskies suddenly looked thin versus the Cougars (9-3, 2-1).

Roy, who is averaging 32.3 points after three Pac-10 games, vowed to avoid foul trouble and stressed the importance of his classmates. "Our younger guys, this is their first time coming across Pac-10 play so they're going to have some learning to do. As the seniors, we have to make their transition easier and right now, I don't think as a team we're not doing a good job of that. I feel like, you know, one night you're playing good, and then the next night you're taking a night off. Like I said, we're not good enough (for that). We need Bobby to play good to be a good team. We need Jamaal Williams to play good to be a good team."

Williams commented on getting pulled shortly after the break, along with Jones, in typical no-nonsense style. "I made an error to start the second half after we had just talked about stuff at halftime," the offensive-oriented forward said of a missed block out that allowed Cougar Ivory Clark to dunk to tie the game. "That was the reason for my disciplinary action of sitting down. So it's something I have to deal with. (The coaches told) me to stay focused and be more attentive in those situations.

"I have to handle the double-teams better," acknowledged Williams, sharing his to-do list which included better shot selection. "Defensive intensity, being aware. Not having as many defensive lapses, even though I have improved in that area, sometimes it will happen at the wrong times. And at those times, that's when Coach (Lorenzo Romar) seems to get very upset with me in those situations. So I've got to try and limit those. If I do that, everything else will be fine."

Some of the growing pains were to be expected, such as freshman forward Jon Brockman having to battle bigger opponents for the first time in his career, as well as the questions regarding the ball-handling duties. With Roy on the bench for 10 minutes in the second stanza, coach Lorenzo Romar was forced to use Justin Dentmon for all but three minutes of the WSU game. The invaluable Dentmon committed just two turnovers and with 62 assists on the season, he's on pace to break the freshman record of 103 set by Eldridge Recasner in 1987. But the lack of depth at the point and the perimeter defense, in particular, are a concern.

The surprising shooting success of the Wildcats' and Cougars' backcourts, especially the three-point accuracy of Adams (5-of-7) and Akognon (6-of-10), is a troubling trend as the Huskies prepare for a perimeter assault from the Trojans and Bruins.

After a tumultuous season and a coaching merry-go-round, USC (11-4, 2-2) has regrouped under first-year coach Tim Floyd to join WSU as the early surprise team of the conference. Not unlike last year's Washington squad, the Trojans are led by a perimeter trio of guards, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart, averaging 16.2 and 13 points per game, respectively, and swingman Nick Young (16.9). Pruitt, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, posted 30 points in Southern Cal's 66-65 victory at Arizona State last Thursday. He hit 5-of-11 from behind the arc, prior to shooting 5-of-10 from three in their 74-63 loss at Arizona.

The mercurial Stewart, a former Rainier Beach standout, scored 18 points, including 4-of-5 from three, as the Trojans handed North Carolina one of their two losses on Dec. 21. He had 16 points Saturday in Tucson, but his only score in the ASU game came on a game-winning trey with two seconds left. According to Floyd, the junior has trimmed down and is beating people off the dribble more this season in addition to firing from the outside.

One of just two upperclassmen starters for USC, Stewart was benched for two games early in the season and was kicked out of practice Tuesday for throwing an elbow at freshman Collin Robinson, the Los Angeles Daily News reported. Citing Stewart's lack of discipline, Floyd indicated that some additional penalty might be handed down.

"It was the kind of play that, had he done it during a game, would have cost us a game, cost him a suspension and cost us an embarrassing article," Floyd said.

Earlier this week, Bull Stewart, the father of twins Lodrick and Rodrick, who transferred to Kansas, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Coach Floyd has been a blessing for (Lod). The team chemistry is very good."

After season-opening losses to Cal State Northridge and Oral Roberts, the Trojans rattled off nine consecutive wins before losing to Cal as the Golden Bears (9-4, 3-1) swept the L.A. schools on the last weekend of 2005. Floyd, who jumped to the NBA briefly after success at Iowa State, has the Trojans playing solid defense. USC is second in the conference to Wazzu, limiting opponents to a .396 shooting percentage and 61.7 points a game. Point guard Ryan Francis is tied with Dentmon for the second-best assist/turnover ratio in the Pac-10 (2.0).

A better defensive effort of their own will be a key for the Huskies in their last visit to the L.A. Sports Arena-a new facility is being built on the SC campus. If the Huskies can create some misses and push the ball, they can try to exploit a potentially fatigued USC squad. All five starters logged 30 or more minutes in Tempe, including 6-foot-11 center Abdoulaye N'diaye. Hopefully, Jones discovered that he can really push himself in the final minutes of the WSU game, allowing him to counter the Trojan outside threats.

If Jones' minutes continue to be limited by his ankle injury, the onus will be put on Roy as a stopper. "I've got to get back to that hunger defensively, too. A lot of guys have been scoring some career numbers against us. I think me being a senior, I've got to get that back where I want to guard those guys," said Roy, who sat out of a portion of practice earlier this week with lower back pain. "I think that's something I'll be adding this week, guarding Pruitt and (UCLA's) Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar. If not guarding them the whole game, I'm definitely going to be on those guys late in the game. Scoring is definitely going to handle itself. Right now we need somebody to get some stops for us. That's something our coaches have been stressing and something I'm looking forward to showing in these next couple of games."

No jolly at Pauley

It may seem awfully early to be talking about must-win games, but with two conferences losses already and nine Pac-10 road games ahead of them, the USC match-up falls into that category. The Huskies can ill-afford a setback with a visit next to No. 11 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, where the Dawgs have lost 19 straight. Few teams win consistently at Westwood, but for Washington it's been a graveyard. Even last year's veteran squad seemed to succumb to the ghosts of Pauley, relinquishing a 36-15 lead en route to a 95-86 defeat, the UW's 40th in 42 visits.

The young Bruins (13-2, 3-1) leapt six spots in the AP Poll after sweeping in the Arizona desert for the first time in nine years. With notable wins in Ann Arbor and Tucson, UCLA has overcome a rash of injuries for their best start since the national championship season of 1995. Coach Ben Howland, who is 3-1 versus the UW in his two years in Westwood, got eight or more points from six of the seven Bruins who played significant minutes in the 85-79 victory over the Wildcats last week, as the Uclan shot nearly 61 percent.

Against Arizona State, things went very differently. The powder-blue squad shot 24 percent in the first half and needed every one of guard Arron Afflalo's 21 points before he went down hard on a drive with two minutes remaining and left with a hip pointer. Jordan Farmar, who's nursing the same injury as Jones, a bad right wheel, saved the Bruins' bacon with two scores in the final 35 seconds as they escaped with a 61-60 win.

While guards Afflalo and Farmar sat out practice Tuesday but are listed as probables for this weekend, forward Josh Shipp is out for the season after a significant contribution in the last four games. He returned from early-season hip surgery, but the pain was great enough to wipe out his year. The networks could base a doctor drama on the Bruins woes alone as the team's centers have been unusually plagued. The Huskies may be fortunate to duck both of their senior 7-footers as Olympia's Michael Fey is doubtful with a high-ankle sprain and Ryan Hollins is doubtful with a strained groin. Both have missed the last five games. Sophomore center Lorenzo Mata suffered a slight fracture of his nose at ASU and will play with a mask. Oh, and swingman Cedric Bozeman is out with torn cartilage in his shoulder.

So, how have the Bruins done it? Well, in a word, barely. After two promising wins at the Preseason NIT and a "quality loss" at Memphis, UCLA peeled off an eight-game winning streak that included close calls versus the likes Drexel, Albany and Wagner. They looked good versus Nevada at the Wooden Classic (following Washington's only "road" venture so far) and they put a hurtin' on Stanford, but lost to Cal 68-61. The injuries have forced Howland to use two freshmen forwards from Cameroon, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who is second in the Pac-10 in rebounds (8.7), and Alfred Aboye. Given the number of disabled players, their main rotation has often been only eight players deep.

Like USC, the Bruins are scoring more than 69 points a game, while allowing less than 62 points, but their shooting percentage (.490) and rebounding margin (+5.0) rival that of the Huskies. UCLA's three-point shooting has been very streaky-they were 1-for-15 against the Sun Devils. Their youth-they'll likely start five underclassmen-has played a part in being next-to-last in the conference with turnover margin of -0.93. They're also last in steals with four fewer per game than the Dawgs.

With Shipp and Bozeman out, three of their top four scorers are guards, so perimeter defense will again be critical. Afflalo (19 points a game), Farmar (13.5, but only 7.8 so far in conference play), and reserve Darren Collison (6.5 in Pac-10 action) are the most pressing targets. Farmar, the conference Freshman of the Year last season, is the league leader in assists with 5.62 per game. The Huskies' backcourt could use more prominent contributions from the sophomore reserves, Ryan Appleby and Joel Smith, if they are to counter UCLA's talent youth corps. The scoring and rebounding numbers of Brockman and Williams may also be a telling stat. The pair combined for nine points and 11 rebounds against Washington State.

"Sometimes it takes a loss or a close win to open your eyes and make you realize that if you don't play with heart on defense and do the little things to get rebounds, you're never going to win," said Jones, who admitted to feeling pressure to step up his game.

"Pauley is a tough place to play, especially if you don't come out with 40 minutes of effort and focus," Jones, the Compton native, added. "Depending on how we play Thursday, it would be great momentum coming into Saturday's game because it's going be pretty hyped up. They're ranked, we're ranked. They have great players on their team and we know if we win that game, it would do so much for us right now. It would have us definitely feeling like we belong in the Top 25 and in the top of the Pac-10. So much is at stake."

Having lost two games that could have swung with a single score, coach Romar is well aware of the thin line between success and setback. "There's a lot of parity in this conference. I don't think anyone predicted that Oregon State was going into Cal and would beat them. They had two things against them: Cal was undefeated (in conference) and they hadn't done very well on the road," said the Los Angeles native and former Bruin assistant. "UCLA goes into Arizona right after Arizona comes in here and beats us, UCLA beats them there. But then Cal beat UCLA at Cal. So there's a lot of parity and look for more upsets for the rest of this season."

For those superstitious Husky fans looking for the school's first sweep in L.A. since 1987, consider that the No. 13 Huskies will play the day before and the day after Friday the 13th. This is, after all, the weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. Who says the Husky Nation can't have a dream too.

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