Like any good coach, Lorenzo Romar has a sense for pushing buttons.

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Like any good basketball coach, Lorenzo Romar has a sense for pushing buttons. He recently booted his team from practice when he felt nothing was getting done. He has had assistant coaches deliver the key words. At halftime of a game last year, he told his Washington players not to bother bringing basketball shoes for the next practice if they didn’t show up for the second half.

Romar’s latest ploy was to get out of town. (That’s a message heard by several previous UW coaches.)

The Huskies left Monday afternoon for Albuquerque, site of tomorrow night’s Sweet 16 game against Louisville. The idea was to better acclimate to the high-desert altitude of 5,314 feet.

“Is there a concern?” Romar asked Monday. “Yes. That’s why we’re going early. I’ve been told that if you get there two or three days early, you become used to it. It appears to be normal to you.”

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Some 15 months ago, before the Huskies got hotter than NASCAR in North Carolina, they went to Wyoming — a venue proud to display signs reminding your lungs that you’re at 7,200 feet. Washington trailed by 30 early.

“It was terrible,” said forward Brandon Roy. “I played 20 minutes, and I felt that was too much. I almost felt sick for like a week straight after that. I had to go to the doctor.”

Perhaps because of that experience, Roy has become something of a team expert on elevation.

“He’s the king of finding out if there’s altitude,” said teammate Will Conroy. “Last week in Boise, I was running around, crazy, and he said, ‘You know, there’s altitude up here.’ ”

“First game,” Roy nodded, “we were a little tired. Second game, we were fine with it.”

Now comes Dr. David Martin, an altitude expert in the department of cardio-pulmonary care sciences at Georgia State University, with some sobering news for the Huskies:

This is all a crock.

Martin is a former chairman of the sports medicine and sports sciences committee of USA Track and Field. One of his responsibilities is to counsel on altitude so training can be tailored properly.

As Martin explains it, the relative lack of oxygen at altitude puts oxygen-carrying red blood cells at a disadvantage — leaving athletes gasping. In time, a hormone known as EPO stimulates the kidneys to produce more red-blood cells, resulting in increased efficiency.

“It takes about a week for that hormone stimulus to kick in,” Martin said, adding that for a complete transition, “you need two weeks.”

The notion that one could adjust physically within 72 hours, Martin says, is nonsense. He’ll get no argument from people at Gonzaga, who remember playing Purdue in the Sweet 16 at Albuquerque in 2000, having freshly lost defensive standout Mike Nilson to an injury.

As luck would have it, there was no clock stoppage for the usual, initial TV timeout near the 16-minute mark. Instead, the seconds ticked all the way to 12:40 before an interruption.

“We had absolutely no depth,” said Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice. “We kept waiting for that first whistle. Our guys were gassed.”

As if being a mile high isn’t enough, the Pit has another unique element: Teams must hike from the floor up a steep ramp to their locker rooms, an added cruelty Jamaal Williams recalls well.

“That ramp is something else,” said Williams, the Huskies forward who began his career at New Mexico. “I remember the first time I got there. You go up at halftime, and I was sprinting up there, and the other team is walking, dragging up the rail, trying to get up that ramp.

“It’s funny to watch how that happens.”

Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t completely douse the UW itinerary with cold water. He notes that flying in the low humidity of an airplane lends to dehydration; and indeed, yesterday at mid-morning, Seattle’s humidity was 51 percent, Albuquerque’s 32. So forcing fluids days before could ward off at least one malaise.

Of course, it’s not only about physical readiness. Romar has been around the block once or twice, and surely he knows there’s a psychological side to this debate. If his players think going in Monday will help, so be it.

Just as long as they don’t obsess over altitude. Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst who coached at New Mexico, has seen it happen.

“It’s more mental than anything else,” said Fraschilla. “I told another school, ‘Do not bring the oxygen tanks; it weighs on your team’s mind.’ ”

In 2000, Washington took a team to the Pit under Bob Bender, and Fraschilla’s Lobos routed the Huskies 78-52.

“They had oxygen tanks behind the bench,” Fraschilla said. “That was pretty much psychological defeat.”

Boldly stated, coaches have to figure this about their players: What they don’t know won’t hurt ’em.

Undoubtedly, that’s what Jerry Tarkanian, the old Nevada-Las Vegas coach, was thinking as he took one of his teams to practice at a high-altitude site in the Rockies on game’s eve. The Rebels were met with one of those sobering signs advising them of the altitude.

“Don’t worry,” scoffed Tark, who may have believed it himself. “We’ll be playing indoors.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Hoops heaven
Division I college basketball arenas with the highest altitude (in feet):
Altitude City University
7,220 Laramie, Wyo. Wyoming
7,064 Air Force Acad., Colo. Air Force
6,913 Flagstaff, Ariz. N. Arizona
5,351 Boulder, Colo. Colorado
5,314 Albuquerque, N.M. New Mexico
5,270 Denver Denver
Source: Media/visitor guides
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