Search engines are like mirrors, ideal for superficial scrutiny, and in this way the Internet has never been kind to Isaiah Thomas. When Thomas, a 5'9" guard at Washington, Googles himself to find a game photo, for instance, the famously self-assured 21-year-old is confronted not only with another man's visage but also with existential doubt. He can even tack on a slew of personal search terms—basketball, point guard, NCAA, undersized, African-American. But the response, thanks to a certain Hall of Fame playing career and ensuing Hall of Shame executive résumé, is always the same.
Did you mean: Isiah Thomas?
For the millionth time, No. Or at least, as Isaiah's parents clarify, not exactly.
In 1988 James Thomas, a Los Angeles native who had moved to Tacoma, Wash., bet a close friend that his beloved Lakers would once again beat the Pistons in the NBA Finals. The stakes? The name of James's first son. But on Feb. 7, 1989—months before Isiah Thomas, no relation, would lead Detroit to a sweep of L.A. for the title—a boy arrived, and by then James had warmed to the idea of his very own Isiah. The baby's mother, Tina Baldtrip, agreed to the christening only under one condition: that second, all-important a. "Spelled just like in the Bible," notes Tina, who separated from James when Isaiah was very young. Of course, when her son went to South Kent (Conn.) School for his senior year to polish his grades and his game, hecklers chanted "We hate your dad!" anyway.
The confusion was forgivable. It turns out that Isaiah, like Isiah, is a hard-driving, high-scoring guard. That Isaiah, like Isiah, is small for his chosen craft. (Isiah stands 6'1".) And that Isaiah, like Isiah, is something of a hardwood Napoleon: A finalist for both the Wooden Award and the Cousy Award (given to the nation's top point guard), he may well have the biggest ego-to-height ratio in the country. (The more than 12,000 followers of his Twitter account, Isaiah_Thomas2, seem motivated equally by fandom and schadenfreude.)
So Thomas has turned mistaken identity into a point of pride. "It's an honor to be named after someone like [Isiah]," says Isaiah, who was averaging 17.1 points and a Pac-10--best 5.8 assists per game through week's end for the 20th-ranked Huskies. "It was weird at first, but I'm used to it now. I'm trying to do what he did on the court." In fact, one of the junior's "most special" memories consists of just five words from the first conversation he had with his namesake, not long before the first of Washington's two (soon to be three) straight tournament runs. "Isaiah," said Isiah, "I'm your biggest fan."
Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the purple-hued home of the Huskies (15--5, 7--2 Pac-10), is besieged in winter by frigid gales blowing in off Seattle's Union Bay. In the late 1970s, when Washington coach Lorenzo Romar first stepped onto the arena's floor as a transfer from Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, Calif., the sound of the wind was pretty much the only noise in the building. "There weren't a lot of expectations," Romar says, sitting in his third-floor office. "I remember coming out of the locker room before we'd go out for warmups, just to see if anyone was out there."
Romar, 52, now has audible signs of success. As he has led the Huskies to five NCAA berths and three Sweet 16s in eight years, the home stands have been ever fuller and ever louder. Since the beginning of the 2002--03 season, Washington has gone 126--24 at 10,000-seat Hec Ed, which has operated at almost 95% capacity the past two years. And now the team's postseason expectations are at an alltime high.
In a Pac-10 enervated by early departures, the Huskies have stockpiled players ideal for their swarming, up-tempo style. Romar has size in underrated 6'9" forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning (15.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) and 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye (4.6 and 5.9). He can stretch the floor with deep threats such as Justin Holiday, Scott Suggs and Terrence Ross, all 6'6". And looming in the backcourt is Thomas, the team's engine and co-captain, who began the year having scored more points (1,134) in his first two seasons than anyone in school history. Not only can the squad score in bunches (86.7 points per game, No. 2 in the country), but it also ranks among the best in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency (fifth and 22nd, respectively).
"I really admire Washington's system: They're athletic, they play hard, they defend, they have great speed," says one opposing Pac-10 assistant. "But Thomas is critical because he's multidimensional, with a very high skill level. They can run him off screens, he can get buckets when the defense is organized, and he's just as good in transition." Or as Arizona coach Sean Miller declared on Jan. 20, after Thomas dropped in 22 points and had 10 assists and six boards in an 85--68 rout of the Wildcats, "When he has the ball in his hands, a lot of bad things happen to you."