Huskies' Robinson plays big

Originally Published: November 26, 2004
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- There is no need for the usual qualifiers. Not anymore.

Sure, there was a time when Washington junior guard Nate Robinson could be described as a good basketball player for his size. When he was a freshman cornerback moonlighting with the Huskies basketball team (and even to a certain extent last season), there was a sort of freak-show appeal to his game.

He is, after all, a player with crazy athleticism, a guy listed at 5-foot-9 with a vertical jump of more than 40 inches. He's a little guy who sees nothing wrong and nothing unusual with the idea of driving to the basket and taking it at players who are often literally a foot taller than him. He plays with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, trying to prove that a little guy can succeed in a game where height is coveted.

He is a highlight waiting to happen.

But to simply describe him as exciting doesn't provide a complete picture. Not any longer.

Robinson isn't a great player for his height. He isn't the best player in the country shorter than 6 feet. He isn't a guy who's really fun to watch because of his crazy hops.

Robinson is simply one of the best guards in college basketball. End of sentence. End of story. No ifs, ands or buts needed.

He clearly showed that Thursday night as the Huskies defeated Utah in the quarterfinals of the Great Alaska Shootout. Because as impressive as Robinson's 29 points were (he's only scored more than that once in his career), when he got the points was even more impressive.

While it appeared as if the No. 22 Huskies were going to roll in this game, Utah rallied from 13 points down to make it close in the second half. When Utes big man Andrew Bogut cut to the basket and scored with 5:32 to play, Washington's lead was down to two, 62-60.

And that's when Robinson did what top-level players are supposed to do. He took over.

He split two defenders on the next possession (including Bogut) and scored a layup. Then, after Utah tied the game 64-64, Robinson really got going. He hit a 16-footer, then drove to the basket, then grabbed a loose ball on the defensive end that led to a Will Conroy layup.

"Down the stretch, when we needed a bucket, he turned it on again," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "Great players are able to do that. He picked his spots and when there were openings, he was able to come through for us. He made big baskets."

Ray Giacoletti, the former Eastern Washington and current first-year Utah coach, has seen Robinson's transformation.

"He was not a very good shooter three years ago," Giacoletti said. "He's worked his butt off to become a pretty damn good shooter."

That's been one of Robinson's biggest focuses since going from part-time basketball player to full-time.

"When I was young, I could pretty much always go to the hole," Robinson said. "My dad was telling me that if I got to be a good shooter, I'd be unstoppable. So I've worked on my jumper every day.

"I love basketball with a passion and people don't think I can play. I want to prove that I can, I know I can. Every day I want to show the world."

How impressive has Robinson become? It's gotten to the point where he's made his backcourt mate and long-time friend Brandon Roy look average. Roy, however, is anything but. Against Utah, he scored 25 points on 11-for-19 shooting.

"Roy and Robinson may be the best two players on any one team in America," said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, whose Sooners face the Huskies on Friday night.

In many ways, the transformation of the Huskies under Romar mirrors the evolution of Robinson's game. In the two-plus years since Romar was hired from Saint Louis, the Huskies have gone from a team with a lot of raw athleticism to one that is very legitimate. And just like Robinson's clutch play is often overshadowed by his lack of size, the defense played by the Huskies doesn't get the attention their offense gathers.

"I'd be hard pressed to think of a more athletic team or one that buys in and loves playing defense [more] in the rest of the country," Giacoletti said. "I can't think of somebody that is going to get out and guard the way they guard. They appear to be as good as anybody on the perimeter guarding the basketball. The pressure is so great where we couldn't get into sets."

Everyone will certainly know more about the Huskies by the end of the weekend. After the game with Oklahoma, there's a possibility that Washington will play No. 19 Alabama on Saturday. That game would certainly be played above the speed limit.

Considering the way Arizona has struggled so far this season -- losing at Virginia and struggling to beat Michigan -- could Washington be the Pac-10 favorite? That might be a bit early to declare, but the Huskies' late-season run a year ago -- they won 14 of 16 games before losing to Stanford in the championship game of the Pac-10 tournament -- certainly appears to be anything but a fluke.

Just like Robinson is much more than a freak show.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.