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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball | Focus on defense elevates Wallace

Artem Wallace may be the prototype of the new Huskies way. Four weeks after he couldn't even get off the bench in a win over Long Beach...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Cal State Northridge @ Washington, 3 p.m. FSN

Artem Wallace may be the prototype of the new Huskies way.

Four weeks after he couldn't even get off the bench in a win over Long Beach State, Wallace is suddenly entrenched in the starting lineup, the biggest beneficiary of coach Lorenzo Romar's increasing emphasis on defensive effort in practices and games.

Wallace, a junior forward, is averaging just 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds a game but will get his third consecutive start today when UW hosts Cal State-Northridge at Edmundson Pavilion at 3 p.m.

"It's primarily defense," Romar said. "And he's safe. He's not going to really hurt you when he's out there. He's not going to have a whole lot of turnovers, and he's a very smart player. He understands offensively what we are doing."

Wallace chuckles a bit at the thought of suddenly being known as a defensive stopper.

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who came to the United States in 2001, Wallace averaged 23.4 points a game as a senior at Toledo High, a role he envisioned continuing in college.

"I didn't play any defense in high school," said the 6-8 Wallace. "I was a guy who just stayed in the key and blocked shots and never left the paint. That's not the way the bigs play here, so that was a big adjustment to make."

It was one he'd appeared to have successfully navigated last season, however, when he started seven games — most at midseason as an injury/illness replacement for Spencer Hawes — filling the role of the dirty-work guy in the middle. He received the John Meyers Defensive Player of the Year Award at the end of the season and looked to have carved his niche at UW.

But the offseason was not kind to Wallace.

First came a brush with the law that painted Wallace in an unfavorable light. He was a passenger in a car in May that was involved in a hit-and-run and described in police reports as having been "extremely intoxicated." Initially, with police unable to immediately sort out who had done what, Wallace was portrayed as possibly having been the driver, before a two-month investigation cleared him of any crime (the driver, not connected to the UW basketball program, was eventually charged with hit-and-run and negligent driving).

Wallace said he was always confident "things would work out, and they did."

He said, "Obviously you worry when something like that happens because you don't know how it will reflect on your public image. But you can't really worry about it. You just have to do the right things from then on and hopefully it will come back to where it was."

Then in August, Wallace was not allowed to accompany the team to its summer tour to Greece because of passport problems related to his Russian citizenship. Around the same time, he pulled a hamstring, and the resulting inactivity caused him to gain a few pounds and show up to preseason camp a little out of shape — for the first time in his UW career, he didn't win the preseason mile run.

Wallace says he is back now to his regular playing weight of 246-247 pounds, and Romar says, "He should be commended for the fact that he knew he was behind and he knew that we felt he was behind, and he just kind of hung in there to where he got back [in shape]."

Still, he remained rooted to the bench for most of UW's first seven games, playing just 18 minutes. When guard Adrian Oliver transferred, citing playing time as at least a contributing factor, it was tempting for some to wonder if Wallace might be next. But he says he's never considered it.

"I love the school here, I love the team here," he said. "I've never thought about, 'Maybe I'll go somewhere else.' That's never crossed my mind."

Romar admits that it was hoped Wallace's offensive game might have progressed more by this point in his career.

But after the 96-71 loss at Oklahoma State, Romar again threw all jobs open, deciding defense had to come first, and this time Wallace was in the right spot at the right time.

"It definitely feels great to be starting," he said. "I'm just proud that the coaches trust me enough to have me in there."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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