March 18, 2011 in Sports

Washington eagerly awaits tonight’s game with Georgia

Scott M. Johnson Everett Herald
 
Associated Press photo

Washington’s Isaiah Thomas soars to the basket to dunk during practice for an NCAA East Regional tournament college basketball game in Charlotte, N.C.
(Full-size photo)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Three days on the road.

And the wait isn’t nearly over yet.

After leaving early to get acclimated to its new surroundings, the University of Washington men’s basketball team was starting to get a little impatient as of early Thursday evening – more than 24 hours before tonight’s scheduled tip-off against Georgia in the Huskies’ opening game of the NCAA tournament.

“I’ve been excited ever since we got out here,” freshman guard C.J. Wilcox said before the Huskies worked out on the floor at Time Warner Cable Arena. “The days have been going kind of slow. We’re ready for this game, and we’re ready to get out on the floor.”

As of this morning, the Huskies’ patience will continue to get tested. The Huskies and Georgia won’t tip off until close to 10 p.m. in the East – the scheduled start is approximately 6:45 Pacific time – which puts theirs as the 31st among 32 second-round games this week.

Half those teams played Thursday, while the Huskies were holding a morning practice at nearby Queens College, hanging out in their hotel rooms and taking part in the evening shoot-around.

“We’re definitely anxious to get out there,” said UW junior Darnell Gant, who watched part of Morehead State’s upset of Louisville from his hotel room. “Watching all those teams play, watching everybody get out there compete, it makes you want to get out and play.”

After arriving in Charlotte on Tuesday night, the Huskies have had plenty of time to adjust to the time change and sharpen up their game. They’ve had so much time on the practice court that they used about 15 minutes of Thursday night’s hour-long public shoot-around working on buzzer-beaters and highlight-reel dunks. Scott Suggs and redshirt Desmond Simmons were the only two players to hit half-court shots, while freshman Terrence Ross and 5-foot-9 guard Isaiah Thomas were the stars of the impromptu dunk contest.

With their spare time, the Huskies haven’t been all about basketball, though. Thursday afternoon also included exams for several of the UW players, who are in finals week.

But it was mostly about the waiting.

“Just watching the games, you know that the tournament’s here, and you’re excited for your turn to get out and play,” said senior Venoy Overton, who is expected to be back in action tonight after serving a three-game suspension at last week’s Pac-10 Conference tournament.

This time last year, the Huskies embarked on an unforeseen run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed. A last-second win over Marquette and a wire-to-wire domination of No. 3 seed New Mexico sent the Huskies to the regional semifinals for the fifth time in school history.

In some ways, another ride to the Sweet 16 might not be enough for a UW program that has never advanced to the Elite Eight. The bar was set higher from the outset this season, based in large part on the loss of only one senior from last year’s team. But after the way the Huskies (23-10) played for stretches this season, just getting out of the first round might be enough to satisfy Husky Nation – for now.

“It’s win-or-go-home now,” Thomas said during Thursday’s media session, ”one-and-done or win six in a row and win the national championship. … Just be ready because the bright lights are on now.”

If these teams have something in common, it’s been a maddening habit of inconsistency. Georgia took highly ranked Notre Dame to two overtimes earlier this season and beat then-No. 10 Kentucky, but the Bulldogs also struggled to win games against Mississippi Valley State, Manhattan and Mercer.

The Huskies had streaks of greatness – they went 9-1 over one stretch, with their only loss coming in a one-point nail-biter at Texas A&M – but fell into a February-long funk that almost put them on the tournament bubble.

For UW, that slump seemed to be cured by a run to the Pac-10 tournament title.

“I think we’re just playing better,” Gant said. “We’re playing more as a team. We’re more dialed in at the beginning of games to come in and play hard and play with more intensity.”

What worries the Huskies about Georgia (21-11) is a big frontline that includes 6-10 NBA prospect Trey Thompkins. As an answer, the Huskies are hoping to get more out of 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye, who might even be in the starting lineup after coming off the bench for all three games last week.

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