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December 28, 2005

The road to the Pac-10 title runs through Seattle

Six weeks into the season the Washington Huskies can finally talk about the Pac-10 schedule in the present tense. No more warnings to the young pups that future foes won't fade so fast, that the fast-break baskets won't always come in bunches. With ten often-overmatched opponents behind them, the seventh-ranked Huskies can focus on the one thing that has eluded the school for 20 years, a conference title.

As the flag drops on the Pac-10 race Thursday night against Arizona State, the Dawgs have earned the pole position. With its longest winning streak in 24 years, Washington (10-0) is the conference's only unbeaten team and the highest-ranked school west of the Mississippi. They have proven that they're a Top 20 program and have avoided the pratfalls taken by so many of the conference rivals, but they certainly didn't look top-10 last week versus Lehigh.

The sleepy, pre-Christmas defeat of the Mountain Hawks was no lump of coal, but it was no diamond either. After holding Lehigh to 15 points for the first 25 minutes, the Huskies were outscored 22-11 over the last 15 minutes. Following a basket by Bobby Jones with 7:08 remaining-the 1,000 point of his UW career-Washington was limited to a single 3-pointer by Ryan Appleby down the stretch. The fact that they shot just 33 percent in the second half, and had 18 ugly turnovers to 13 assists should serve as motivation for their Pac-10 tip-off. The coaching staff will see to it.

"Last year's schedule with this year's team, we sure wouldn't be ranked this high," cautioned coach Lorenzo Romar Tuesday, having just returned from a scouting trip to Portland. "We would not be 10-0. It would surprise me if we were 10-0, I should say it that way. That was a difficult schedule last year. This team is still a work-in-progress."

Fortunately for the Huskies, the Pac-10 has shown few signs of being as potent as last season. In a conference full of works-in-progress Arizona and Stanford, the top picks in the preseason media poll, have three and four losses, respectively. Besides the UW, only eleventh-ranked UCLA (10-1), Southern Cal (9-2), and Washington State (7-2) have matched or exceeded expectations.

With the lone exception of the Bruins' victory at Michigan, the Pac-10 hasn't proven to be a pack of road warriors yet, which is good news for the Dawgs. If no team is capable of posting a 7-2 conference road record like Arizona did last season, then it will come down to which team best defends its turf. Washington's 31-game winning streak at Edmundson Pavilion dates back to an overtime loss to UCLA on Jan. 10, 2004. With five ranked teams falling at Hec Ed during the two-year span, it's safe to say that the road to the conference title goes through Seattle.

"We're going to put up a fight whoever we play. If it's in our house, it's going to tough for teams to come in here and get a win out of it," said Jon Brockman, eager to lace them up for Pac-10 play. "We really take pride in this Arena and the record we have on the home court."

The Huskies' first challengers are most notable for what they don't have. Arizona State's Ike Diogu, the league's leading scorer and rebounder last season, skipped his senior year and is now banging for the Golden State Warriors. Arizona, who visits early Saturday for a nationally televised contest, lost the bulk of its scoring punch (34.2 points per game) to the NBA in the form of Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye. The Wildcats also lost guard Jawann McClellan to academic eligibility after he dropped some summer courses in the wake of his father's death. The players who have attempted to fill those shoes have done so with less success than the Huskies who have stepped in for the departed three-headed entity I fondly refer to as "ConRobinSimmons."

The Sun Devils (6-3) pull into Montlake with a two-headed oddity known as Kruger & Krueger. Though their scoring averages are an identical 15 points per game, they're easy to differentiate on the court. Kevin Kruger is a scrappy 6-foot-2 guard who ranks third in the Pac-10 in assists (41), 3-point field goals (23), and steals (21). Bryson Krueger is a slender 6-foot-7 swingman who ranks third in 3-point FG percentage (.457, 16-of-35), and leads ASU with 48 field goals.

The son of UNLV coach Lon Kruger, Kevin is the primary playmaker for the young Devils and leads the conference in minutes played, averaging more than 38 a game. The fact that Krueger also averages more than 34 minutes a game speaks to Arizona State's lack of depth. With senior forward Allen Morill lost to a knee injury and eight underclassman on the roster, coach Rob Evans used just eight players in last week's defeat of Boise State in the opening game of the ASU Holiday Tournament. In the Sun Devils' 72-55 victory over Northern Arizona in the title game, only six players saw more than nine minutes of action.

With four players 6-foot-8 or taller in the eight-man rotation, the Sun Devils have been a solid-rebounding, slightly down-tempo team, the kind that has given the Huskies some problems. While ASU has taken nearly 200 less shots than the Dawgs, they average 72.6 points per game thanks in part to their accuracy from behind the 3-point line (.400) and at the free throw line (.750). In a joust of Pac-10 All-Freshman team candidates, Brockman will square off with Jeff Pendergraph, the 6-10 forward who is averaging 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds over the last four games. Jamaal Williams, whose scoring has helped the Huskies establish a number of early leads, will look to get his trademark jump-hook off against junior Serge Angounou, a familiar face from previous battles and pick-up games on the New Mexico campus when Angounou was an Albuquerque prepster.

In order to exploit the Sun Devils' short bench, look for the Huskies to push the pace whenever possible to wear down their starters, and for Kruger to be harried with a rotation of pressing defenders. If the Huskies come out on top in the rebounding and turnover columns, Washington should post a W against a team picked to finish near the back of the pack.

The Arizona Wildcats (7-3) start the conference slate against WSU in Spokane Thursday with an unusual chip on their shoulder. After falling just short of the Final Four-an 90-89 overtime loss to Illinois-the Wildcats began the season by dropping three of their first five games in rather ragged fashion. Showing a lack of offensive cohesion uncharacteristic of a Lute Olson team, Arizona fell from the rankings for the first time in 17 years. Prior to Dec. 19 the 'Cats had been ranked in 312 consecutive regular-season AP polls.

But the Wildcats are showing signs of improvement as Olson retools the squad around guard Hassan Adams. For the first time in 10 games Arizona emerged with a better shooting percentage than its opponent in an 86-81 overtime defeat of Western Kentucky in Tucson last week. Adams had a game-high 23 points along with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals to take home the Pac-10 Player of the Week honors. The 6-foot-4 acrobat leads the conference in scoring (19.3 per game) and steals (2.8), and in a sign of the 'Cats struggles, he also leads the team in rebounds (6.7). WKU out-rebounded Arizona 48-35 and the Wildcats are next-to-last in the conference with a rebounding margin of -0.8.

Arizona will need some sizable contributions from the most recent embodiments of its Northwest connection if the Wildcats are to avoid losing to the Huskies for the sixth time in the last seven meetings. Freshman forward Marcus Williams from Seattle's Roosevelt High has improved his midrange game and averaged 16 points in UA's two games last week on 14-of-17 shooting. Senior guard Chris Rodgers, hailing from Portland's Wilson High, has stepped into the starting lineup in place of McClellan and showed better shot selection last week with a pair of 19-point games on 8-of-15 shooting from behind the arc. Rodgers is the 'Cats primary threat from three, having improved his 3-point shooting percentage to .343 (23-of-67).

Arizona's backcourt quickness will be a challenge for the Huskies' offense, which continues to lead the nation in scoring and assists despite the muted numbers from the Lehigh game. Freshman point guard Justin Dentmon, in particular, will face his stiffest test as Adams, Rodgers, and Mustafa Shakur rank first, second and eighth on the Pac-10 steals list. Arizona leads the conference in turnover margin at +9.3 per contest.

The Huskies' preparations for the New Year's Eve tilt will include some run-throughs of their zone offense. Arizona has historically mixed things up with a 1-3-1 zone similar to the one New Mexico used to slow the Dawgs. The book on the Huskies so far appears to read, in part: 1) get back quickly to prevent Appleby's 3-point bombs in transition, and 2) pack the defense to force the perimeter shot. No Husky besides Appleby has hit more than six treys and the team has shot 25 percent or less from three in the last three games. Mike Jensen, who drilled two perimeter jumpers in his first game back, can hopefully hit over the zone or draw a body away from the blocks to give Williams or Brockman some room to turn.

Romar professed a lack of concern over the shooting blues versus Lehigh (.383 for the game), but the field goal percentage will be a telling stat against Arizona. The Wildcats are next-to-last in shooting percentage (.423) so far and have hit less than 30 percent of their three-point launches, last in the conference.

"A lot of teams have thrown that 1-3-1 at us this preseason. I think we'll be ready to go out there and attack it," Williams said. "We have a little bit of a different offensive scheme to attack it from the previous year. I think we'll be ready to go."

The last time the Huskies entered the full Pac-10 schedule undefeated was the last week of 1979 with a senior point guard by the name of Lorenzo Romar. The Dawgs promptly dropped their first two conference games at Arizona and Arizona State. Romar believes this squad has the talent and focus to avoid an opening misstep. Arizona State took the Huskies to overtime in their Pac-10 Tourney opener and Arizona walked away with the regular-season title when the Dawgs fell to Stanford on the final Saturday. They won't need a history book to remember that. With two triumphs this weekend, the Huskies can open with a one game lead over a top rival and run their record for the calendar year of 2005 to 30-5. That would be something for the history books.


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