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December 1, 2005You're familiar with the seniors, even if they're not completely familiar with their evolving roles. Brandon Roy, Bobby Jones, Jamaal Williams, and the rehabbin' Mike Jensen have stepped into new shoes as the man, the wingman, the starter, and the mentor, respectively.
The only way you haven't heard of the freshman class is if you've been traveling beyond the reach of newspapers and the Internet for 13 months. Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon are proving themselves worthy of the preseason praise, contributing to the starting lineup as a rebounding battler and a ball hawk. While the immediate impact of the Freshman Five has been muted slightly by the stress fracture of Harvey Perry and the red-shirt status of Joe Wolfinger, no Washington class has garnered so many headlines so fast.
Overlooked in the excitement is a pair of sophomores who may provide the final piece to the puzzle. Transfer guard Ryan Appleby and swingman Joel Smith gave notice last week against Loyola Marymount how sizable their contributions can be. Appleby and his shorter locks came off the bench four minutes in and immediately drilled a 3-pointer. By the time he was done, the stealthy assassin from Stanwood had drained six from behind the arc, just one short of the school record, in 20 minutes of action. With 18 points Friday, he has scored in double figures in four of six games this season.
Smith entered the game eight minutes in and quickly fed lone junior Hans Gasser for a trey. On the next possession, the man with the 'fro was fouled in the act and hit both free throws. Later in the half, Smith got to the hole for six consecutive points, twice off of steals. His final stats demonstrated his versatility: 8 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks against taller players, in just 14 minutes of action.
Make no bones about it, the Huskies' seniors are the reason why they are considered conference contenders, but this second wave of second-year players may be the difference between a fourth-place finish, as predicted in the preseason media poll, and playing for the Pac-10 title come March. With a team-leading 17 treys, Appleby has the range and quick release to punish zones and provide instant offense and has proved to be a consistent cog in UW's awesome defensive effort so far this year. With 17 assists, third-most on the squad, and the second-most blocks amongst the guards, Smith has the athleticism to do whatever is needed. Together they provide a counter-punch to the opponents' reserves.
"I think it will help us if I can hit some shots from the outside because it will open things up for guys penetrating from the wings and the top," said Appleby. "Also, they can't double-down as much and they'll have to play one-on-one in the post."
""Joel brings a lot of energy off the bench, athleticism, and some excitement with the way he can run and jump," Appleby added. "He'll hit a couple shots, or he'll get a bunch of rebounds, or just getting in there actively defensively. He's the type of guy that brings something a little bit different every game."
The early season stats are slightly watered down as proven players like the seniors and Smith, who averaged more than 14 minutes a game last year, have played sparingly. With the Huskies winning six games by an average of 33 points, ten players have seen more than 12 minutes a game. The rotation will tighten against the likes of Gonzaga and New Mexico, with Smith's and Appleby's time increasing from their current average of 15.8 and 21.2 minutes, respectively. Appleby is fifth on the team in scoring (10.2), with Smith (7.2) trailing Dentmon, the team-leader in minutes so far, for sixth.
"He's very fast, very quick, and basketball smart," Smith said of Appleby. "He's a real threat from the outside, since Tre left, he's a real plus for us stepping up and taking that shooting role from the arc."
"I've got to go out there and be hungry for rebounds and try to get into the paint and create for everybody else just like Brandon and Bobby are doing," said Smith, who chipped in 12 points in the BCA Classic championship game.
One of the three seniors has led the team in scoring in each of the first six games. Roy has looked for his teammates as much as his shot, leading the team in assists as often as in points (three games) and once in rebounds. When Jones and Williams had quiet games versus Air Force, he stepped up with 27 points and 10 rebounds. Averaging 16.8 points thus far, his seemingly effortless ways have contributed 27 assists, second on the team, with a squad-leading 11 steals and 8 blocks. Look for him to get more touches Sunday and in the Wooden Classic the following weekend.
"When we've needed a bucket in the past, we have gone to Brandon Roy time and time again," said Lorenzo Romar. The coach explained that he's as sure of Roy in the clutch as any certainty in life, asking rhetorically, "Will my house be there when I get home? That's how I confident I am in that."
People talk about the new players. Well, Bobby Jones is kind of new in some respects too, playing more on the perimeter for us. He's done well making that adjustment. Brandon Roy is handling the ball a lot more than he had. As a group we're a work-in-progress," said the Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
Romar was asked if the Huskies would be better prepared going into the Gonzaga game if they'd played a more competitive schedule. "I don't think it's the best thing in the world to play some of the elite teams in the nation while you're still a work-in-progress. I've seen situations where teams don't recover from it, you lose you're confidence."
Jones is showing no lack of confidence on the wing after having to scrap on the blocks more often last season for an undersized team. Shooting a healthy 60 percent, Romar's first recruit has scored 15 or more points in three games, with a nine-rebound effort against Idaho.
"Since my role is getting bigger, I'm able to feel more confident about doing things," Jones said after the American game. "I played about 24 minutes (a game) last year. So hopefully I can play above 30. You get me on the court longer, I'll get more opportunities to score, get transition points. There's so many different ways you can score and get more rebounds. So I'm trying to average a double-double and hopefully make the all-conference team."
Williams notched his first double-double wearing the purple-and-gold against LMU, one game after knocking down 16 points in 16 minutes versus the Vandals. In his first year as a starting forward, Williams' game needs some refining as he's had a tendency to force a few shots, tallying a few more turnovers than Romar would like.
"I think my role has increased. So scoring and rebounding will be a big deal for me. Everything else will take care of itself," said the man they call 'Maal.
If the seniors have added the stability, two freshmen have added the spark. The pride of Snohomish, Brockman has quickly become the Masked Marvel of Montlake. In just his third collegiate game, he sparked the Huskies over Air Force, their closest contest of the season, with 21 points and 10 boards, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the BCA Classic. The son of an assistant principal, he speaks like a humble graduate student, yet plays with the abandon of a middle linebacker. In pursuit of rebound he'll level anything in his path, regardless of whether it's friend or foe.
A collision with Jones in the American game left the senior sprawled on the baseline and Brockman wobbling off, rubbing his skull. Jones left the game momentarily with a numb limb. Afterwards, the freshman was asked if he even knows when to come out.
"If I was really stumbling," he said waving his hand, "and the lines were moving, I'd call for a sub."
"He doesn't see different colors of jerseys," Williams reported.
Perhaps Brockman can blame the mask, which he says leaves some blind spots. But it's necessary to protect a nose broken in preseason practice for the fifth time. Another fracture could jeopardize his ability to breathe properly. It certainly hasn't slowed him down as he leads the team in rebounds (8.2 a game), and is second on the squad in scoring (14.0), shooting 65 percent.
At the press conference Tuesday, Romar recalled an instance as telling as any of Brockman's game highlights. "We were up in the lobby area just talking, (Brockman), myself, Mitch Johnson and Martell Webster. I had a ball as we were talking, just messing around, and I dribbled it off my foot and the ball was about to run inside Hec Ed and go down the stairs. I took two quick steps and without thinking, he yelled, 'Dive.' That was what he said to me because that's what he would have done. He's not even in the game and that's what he's thinking. That's just his mindset."
The 5-foot-11 Dentmon can't match Brockman's bulk, but he's become a little big man at point guard. The kid from Carbondale, Ill., posted 9 assists versus LMU, including a 360-dish in the lane, and now leads the team with 30. His maturation has quieted the debate over who the true point guard would be.
"Beginning in that third game of the BCA Classic until now, he has really grown up as a point guard," Romar said. "Justin averaged 25 points a game last year (at The Winchendon School, a preparatory academy in Massachusetts). In high school he just carried his team offensively. And to be able to shift gears and now lead our team in assists with a 2-to-1 assist/turnover ratio as a freshman, with as many possessions as we've had in these games, I think has been outstanding. He's drawing charges and spearheaded our defense up top. He does a pretty good job of keeping the ball in front of him."
Dentmon, who said he he was excited for the Gonzaga game because it will be the first time his mother has seen him in a Husky uniform, has earned the confidence of his teammates. "He's not scared of anything or anyone," said Smith, who knows a thing or two about the pressures of freshman ball-handler. "He's become so much better since I first saw him in the gym."
"Brandon has kind of served as a chaperone for Justin, as has Ryan Appleby," Romar described. "He hasn't had to come in and the ball is in his hand the entire time and we're waiting for him to make every move. Between Ryan and Brandon, those guys have been able to share the responsibilities and take some pressure off of him."
Dentmon is not the only frosh earning his coach's praise. "I think Artem Wallace is a very talented basketball player. It seemed like the third game of the year, the light went on for Justin. It's just a matter of time when the light comes on for Artem and he goes out and plays relaxed. Once that happens, he's going to get a lot done."
When did the light come on for Brockman? "Probably when the doctor slapped his butt," Romar responded.
If the pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place, with strong supporting roles from the complementary sophomores, these Huskies will kick a little butt of their own.
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