Huskies leading Pac-12 despite not hitting stride

TIM BOOTH AP Sports Writer Published:

SEATTLE (AP) -- The last time Washington was off to such a blistering start in conference play, Lorenzo Romar was coaching a squad filled with experience and confidence.

So ask him about his current group of Huskies being 9-2 in league play and a full game ahead of California and Colorado in the Pac-12 standings, and he has a far different outlook.

"You would think, 'Well, you are 9-2. You are a full game ahead with seven games left. You should feel like you are in the driver's seat.' I don't feel like that at all," Romar said this week. "Maybe because we've been digging ourselves out of a hole all season long, I still feel like we are digging ourselves out of a hole."

Washington (16-7, 9-2) enters the stretch run of its season on Thursday night when it travels to Oregon. It's the beginning of a stretch during which the Huskies will play five of their last seven conference games on the road and will be a true test as they try to hold on to their slender lead.

Along with the trip to Oregon, the Huskies will host the Arizona schools, then close the season with road games at Washington State, at USC and at UCLA before the Pac-12 tournament.

While the Huskies are still young and inexperienced, Romar's crew took advantage of a favorable setup to this year's conference schedule, which was frontloaded with home games, before facing the difficult closing stretch. With such a novice group making up the core of this year's roster, the schedule setup was just what Romar wanted.

Now comes the challenge of proving that the lessons learned from the hot start can take hold away from home.

"The level of confidence, first off, that we're capable of winning a game and playing well on the road," Romar said. "But secondly, what has fueled that confidence is the ability to know what to do so we can be successful on the road: guard, compete, don't stand around offensively, don't be so impatient and go for the first shot the first chance you get. ... Those things have helped us with confidence to know what to do on the road."

The last time Washington got off to such a strong start in conference play was the 2004-05 season, when Washington would finish second in the regular season, go on to win the Pac-10 tournament and claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies reached the regional semifinals before losing to Louisville in the round of 16.

That Washington squad was very experienced, with the majority of the Huskies rotation filled with juniors and seniors. Those Huskies were so deep that future All-America Brandon Roy came off the bench most of the season. They played in a Pac-10 that Romar acknowledged this week was more challenging than the current Pac-12.

That season, Washington reached 10-2, the best conference start in school history, with an overtime win at Oregon before falling at Oregon State three days later.

And wouldn't you know that's the same scenario facing the Huskies this time around.

"We had hit a stride by then," Romar recalled of that 2005 team. "This team, even though we've won five in a row, we have not hit a stride yet. Hopefully we can, but there is a difference between then and now."

Washington's current five-game win streak is its longest of the season and longest since the Huskies won six straight early last season. Even more impressive for a team that has struggled away from home is the Huskies' three-game road winning streak. Washington hasn't won four straight road games since the 2009-10 season and has accomplished that feat just twice in the last 15 seasons.

This season's streak includes a win at Arizona nearly two weeks ago, the type of victory that gives Romar and his team confidence going into what will likely be a rowdy environment in Eugene.

"These are must-win games and if we can beat Oregon we could really be in the driver's seat as far as being comfortable," Washington forward Darnell Gant said.

___

Follow Tim Booth on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ByTimBooth