The Los Angeles schools provided the opposition when Washington opened its Pacific-10 Conference schedule in December, and they will do so again this week as the regular season ends.
That full circle of conference play could indicate how much progress the veteran Huskies have made this season. And that’s an area where coach Lorenzo Romar admits his team has been lacking.
“I don’t think we have progressed nearly as well as we’ve needed to,” Romar said. “Case in point: At the beginning of the year when we were 4-0 – maybe even at 7-2 – we talked about ‘We can’t remain stagnant. We’re doing well right now, but teams are going to get better as the season progresses. We have to make sure that we get better.’ And I don’t think that we have improved as much as we should have.”
Two teams that have improved are the ones about to visit Hec Edmundson Pavilion: UCLA tonight at 6 and USC on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
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The Bruins especially have rebounded from their 74-63 home loss on Dec. 31 to the Huskies, and have rushed past them into a first-place tie with Arizona heading into the final two games of the Pac-10 season.
“UCLA is definitely improved,” Romar said. “That’s, I think, one of the main reasons they’re playing the way they are because they’ve improved so much on the defensive end. They’re playing more like you’re seeing UCLA under Coach (Ben) Howland (typically) plays defense.”
Howland agrees that his team has surged since the loss to the Huskies in Los Angeles.
“The last month and a half of the season, I think we’ve just continued to improve, especially on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “When you have a young team – as young as we are – it’s a process, no question. Not a lot of experience, no seniors on the club. So it’s been good to see our guys continue to get better during the season.”
One who has come on most notably is 305-pound center Josh Smith, a freshman out of Kentwood High School.
Since the start of February, Smith has been his team’s leading scorer in wins over Southern California and St. John’s, and he was the leading rebounder in the win at Stanford.
“He’s really improved as the season progressed, and he’s obviously a huge factor for us,” Howland said. “(In plus-minus statistics), he’s No. 1 on our team in terms of our team having more points for than against than any one of our players. I think that kind of spells it out. When he’s in the game, it’s really important for us because we play better.”
This game marks a homecoming for Smith, a native of Kent who led Kentwood to the 2010 state championship.
“I know he’s excited to go home,” Howland said. “He has his whole family; he’s got a very close family, a lot of friends. Obviously it’s home for him. He has a lot of friends in Seattle and a lot of friends from his high school.”
Since UW and UCLA last saw each other, the Huskies have gone 9-6 while the Bruins are 12-3. However, Howland doesn’t believe that will matter when the teams tip off tonight.
“They’ve got three very good seniors leading them and a strong corps of juniors led by Isaiah Thomas, who I think is the best point guard in our league,” Howland said. “(Matthew) Bryan-Amaning is definitely one of the top three big guys in our league. So they’ve got a very, very good team. And although we lost (in Los Angeles) and it was very disappointing, we kept our noses to the grindstone.”
UCLA (21-8, 12-4 PACIFIC-10 CONFERENCE) AT WASHINGTON (19-9, 10-6)
6 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 950-AM
Series: UCLA leads 91-38. However, UW has won the last two meetings: a 29-point victory at Hec Ed last season and a 74-63 win in Los Angeles on Dec. 31. The Huskies are going for their third regular-season season sweep of the Bruins.
Statistical leaders: For UCLA – Reeves Nelson, 14 ppg and 9 rpg; Lazeric Jones, 3.6 apg. For UW – Isaiah Thomas, 16.9 ppg and 5.8 apg; Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 8.3 rpg.
Scouting report: UCLA is tied with Arizona for the Pac-10 lead, two games ahead of the Huskies. ... These teams rank 1-2 in the Pac-10 in rebounding margin, blocked shots and offensive-rebound percentage. ... The Bruins have won 12 of their last 14 games. Five Bruins average 9.9 points or more. Among them is freshman center Josh Smith of Kent, who averages 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. ... A win would give coach Lorenzo Romar his fifth 20-win team over his nine seasons at UW. ... Thomas’ next steal will be the 109th of his college career, moving him into 10th place in school history. He is two assists away from passing Chester Dorsey for the second most in a single UW season (163). ... Consensus 1953 All-American Bob Houbregs will be honored as a Husky Legend during the first half.
Next: 7:30 p.m. Saturday vs. USC, Hec Edmundson Pavilion, FSN.
Don Ruiz, staff writer