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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

It's time for the Huskies to stop playing nice

During one of the many lulls in Thursday's lopsided loss to USC, the big screen hanging over Edmundson Pavilion's center court focused on...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Today

UCLA @ UW, 1:30 p.m, FSN

During one of the many lulls in Thursday's lopsided loss to USC, the big screen hanging over Edmundson Pavilion's center court focused on former Washington point guard Will Conroy sitting in the stands, getting his first look at this season's Huskies.

Conroy wasn't happy.

His team practically was unrecognizable. It was playing too soft. Too nice. Making the game too easy.

How could the Trojans slip into the seams of the zone that easily? For that matter, why were the Huskies playing a zone?

What happened to that navel-to-navel, man-to-man defense? Why weren't charges being taken? Since when were the Trojans tougher than the Huskies?

Conroy, part of Washington's hoop royalty, watched the loss and wondered what had happened to the line of succession.

There used to be a style that symbolized Washington basketball. Those teams took charges. They took charge. They weren't always better than the opposition, but they were tougher.

That pattern was established at every practice. It was a brand that every player on the roster understood.

Those players — Bobby Jones, Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Mike Jensen, Jamaal Williams, Tre Simmons, Conroy, etc. — loved the game. They played with abandon. They enjoyed imposing their will.

They understood what coach Lorenzo Romar wanted. They were a reflection of him.

Now Conroy, who played for the Huskies from 2002 through 2005 and was home during a brief hiatus from the Italian League season, was watching a team that was unfamiliar to him.

Where was the swagger? Where was all that loud, ornery confidence? Where was the home-court advantage?

When Conroy played at Hec Ed, the place was as inhospitable as Tombstone. The court felt too small. They gym was too hot. And the Huskies swarmed. The game was as much fun as a punch in the mouth.

Conroy's Huskies didn't just beat you. They beat you up. They cracked you coming around a screen. They stood in your way when you drove hard to the rim. They knocked you down and stood over you like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

There would be blood.

They weren't dirty. They were aggressive.

The pressure. The pace. They ran you ragged. And they knocked you silly. Washington was 40 minutes of frantic.

They could shoot. They could pass. They knew how to play the game. But they also knew how to make the game hurt.

Washington's logo should have been a sneer.

But this season's team, which has lost three conference games in a row at home and is stuck in ninth place in the Pac-10, has forgotten how to play that way.

The circle has been broken.

In the best college programs, a healthy, edgy arrogance is bequeathed from one recruiting class to another. The upperclassmen teach the underclassmen the not-so subtle art of competition.

They hold each other accountable.

But this team has lost that identity, that accountability. And part of the reason is that it lost its continuity from recruiting class to recruiting class.

The Class of 2006 has all but disappeared. Only Quincy Pondexter is left from a class that included Spencer Hawes, Phil Nelson and Adrian Oliver.

That class could have been the bridge from Conroy's teams to this team. Hawes had that competitive snarl. But he left for the NBA, and the program is suffering from his absence and the absence of his classmates.

Nobody can question junior forward Jon Brockman's relentlessness. And freshman point guard Venoy Overton has a lot of Conroy's edge.

But this is Team Nice. Its big men are the big easy.

And its seniors haven't passed on the lessons they should have learned from all of those long afternoons in the practice gym with Conroy and Jones, Roy and Jensen.

The Huskies have lost their personality, and Romar should break out some of the old tapes, show them what Washington basketball looked like when Robinson and Conroy were pressing in the backcourt and Jones was rising for a rebound. He should show them how the game is supposed to look.

This afternoon, Washington plays the nastiest team in college basketball.

UCLA leaves a mark.

The Bruins are that bruise you feel on your quad when you try to fight through a screen. They are the elbows that knife into your chest when you rise for a rebound.

They have that arrogance. They have that sneer. They have that belief.

Washington probably won't win today. But these young Huskies can learn.

After four conference losses in a row, next year already has arrived, and it's time for Team Nice to get nasty again.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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