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Pac-10 basketball has produced some small wonders

Washington's Isaiah Thomas and USC's Maurice Jones are two of the latest little guards to spark their teams.

March 09, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Washington Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas has played a critical role in helping the Huskies stay in the NCAA tournament hunt.
Washington Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas has played a critical role in helping… (Mike Nelson / U.S. Presswire )

Opposing student sections serenade Isaiah Thomas with the same chant whenever he lights up the scoreboard.

"It's a small world after all."

The reference to the popular Disney ride and the song that sticks in your brain like melted sugar has become an anthem for burrowing beneath the skin of college basketball's six-foot-and-under stars.

College basketball: In the March 9 Sports section, an article about guards playing basketball in the Pacific 10 Conference said former Oregon player Aaron Brooks is now with the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA. Brooks plays for the Phoenix Suns.

"It just gives me extra motivation to prove someone wrong," says Thomas, a 5-foot-9 junior at Washington.

The funny thing is, when it comes to the guards in the Pacific 10 Conference, it really has been a small world.

Thomas, who will lead the Huskies (20-10, 11-7 in league play) against Washington State (19-11, 9-9) in Thursday's quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center, is not short of talent, though.

A finalist for the Wooden Award (nation's top player) and the Bob Cousy Award (nation's top point guard), he is averaging a team-high 16.6 points and 5.6 assists.

And he is only the latest.

Former California star Jerome Randle, at 5-10, was the Pac-10 player of the year last season.

That season, Arizona's 5-10 Nic Wise and Oregon's 5-7 Tajuan Porter starred for their teams and terrorized everyone else.

Before them, UCLA's 6-foot Darren Collison did the same, as did another Oregon star, 6-foot Aaron Brooks.

And then there was Nate Robinson, Washington's 5-9 spring-loaded leaper.

"There was a time when Magic Johnson was playing that all of a sudden there were a lot of big guards coming along," says Washington's Lorenzo Romar, who coached both Thomas and Robinson. "And there were a lot of guys who weren't point guards who were trying to be point guards."

As to why the Pac-10 works for the Napoleon-sized ones, Arizona Coach Sean Miller says the conference is officiated in a way that "lends itself to less contact." Other factors: The Pac-10 is known for an up-tempo pace, while fewer isolation plays and more zone defenses means smaller guards aren't as exposed on the defensive end.

California Coach Mike Montgomery sees these small guards as just plain gritty. "They generally have a chip on their shoulder," he says.

How does it get there? "That comes with playing basketball all your life and always being doubted," Thomas says.

Pete Newell, the late, legendary basketball coach who ran the Big Man Camp, told The Times in 2004 — Robinson's sophomore year — that those doubts were fading even then.

"The small guy has always been over-judged, I thought, on his weaknesses," Newell said at the time. "But what he brings to a team totally is far more positive than the negatives he brings."

In fact, the play of Robinson, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Brooks, with the Memphis Grizzlies, is starting to shift the NBA's view of short guards.

"They've warmed up to the idea," Romar says of the NBA, "whereas before, and even now you'll hear, 'Ah, I just think he's too small.' "

That phrase has never stopped little guards.

Calvin Murphy, at 5-9, played 13 seasons; Spud Webb, at 5-6, played 13, too; and Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history at 5-3, played from 1987 to 2001.

From the Pac-10, former Arizona star Damon Stoudamire, at 5-10, played from 1995 to 2008.

Still going is Earl Boykins, a 5-5 Eastern Michigan product who has been in the NBA since 1998 and is currently with Milwaukee.

Boykins says it wasn't easy.

"The only way a small guy can be successful is if he finds a coach that has more confidence in his coaching ability than the player has in his playing ability," he says.

Boykins knows he has helped changed perceptions and is proud of those who are coming after him.

Thomas, too, said he's thankful for Boykins to have paved the way.

"It's fun for me and it's relieving," Thomas says, "because it gives me that much more motivation that I can make it."

To that end, the Pac-10's next small star to make it big might be playing a few miles from Hollywood: USC freshman Maurice Jones, who, at 5-7, is the Pac-10's shortest player this season.

At California on Feb. 17, Jones scored 22 points, all in the second half, including 13 in a row at one point, to lead the Trojans to a 78-75 victory.

"He took us by surprise," Montgomery says.

Jones is easy to overlook. Most college coaches didn't see much when it came to recruiting him.

But the Michigan native says he picked USC partly because of the recent top-flight fleet of undersized Pac-10 guards, especially Porter, the former Oregon star and a fellow Michigan native.

Befitting his height, Jones talks softly, but he carries a big game, leading USC in steals (66) and assists (103), and the Pac-10 in minutes played (34.9).

"What Mo's done as a freshman guard, if you look at his whole body of work, is tremendous," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill says.

Jones, like Thomas, receives the "small world" chants.

If they don't ignore it, they can just flash a smile.

It is their world, after all.

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