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March 24, 2006

History-making Huskies are on the cusp again

The Washington Huskies were so ready they left for Washington, D.C. three days early. Justin Dentmon was so ready Monday afternoon, he already had a ball under his arm. There, in the middle of the Founders' Club on the upper floor of Edmundson Pavilion, was the freshman point guard looking twice as excited to get back to shooting the ball as he was at the prospect of a gang-tackling media horde. The Rivals.com Freshman of the Week, Dentmon was a popular interview after guiding the Huskies with 24 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in his first Tournament games.

The maturing guard doesn't seem to get caught on the wrong foot by opposing defenses, but the cameras are another matter.

After a day of travel and two sidetrips to the Capitol Building and the White House, coach Lorenzo Romar was asked if he was surprised at the progress of his young point over the last six weeks.

"I wouldn't say surprised as much as pleasantly pleased," said Romar.

Kind of like the season on the whole. After the loss of three productive seniors and one mighty-mite jumping to the NBA, the UDub Huskies matched their predecessor's regular-season record, but not their No. 1 seed. That went to the UConn Huskies. But the Montlake Malamutes-picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10, not in the final four of the Washington, D.C. bracket-have accomplished a combination of things no Husky squad has done before. The UDub Dawgs led the nation at the beginning of the season with a 32-game home winning streak, setting a school record. That included reversing a losing trend against Gonzaga, who fell only seconds-shy of advancing to the Elite Eight. The victory over the Zags was accomplished despite Brandon Roy fouling out and Adam Morrison having one of the best games of his significant career.

These Huskies won at Pauley Pavilion for the first time in 19 years on their first road trip of the season. They produced Pac-10 road sweeps on three occasions, something last year's heralded team failed to do even once. And they handed Arizona a loss on Senior Day, just the second loss in the final home for Lute Olson's team in 23 years.

Prior to the Dawgs stubbing their toe in the Pac-10 Tournament, their record (the last two seasons) was the best in UW history since the 1953 team, which advanced to the Final Four. Washington's 74 victories over the last three years is just shy of the school-best from 1951-53. The Bob Houbregs-led '53 squad needed only two Tournament victories to reach the Final Four. These Huskies are within a paw of their third.

Not to say that a game against Connecticut is a walk in the park. Make no bones about it, they're in for the dogfight of the season.

"I remember watching Rashad Anderson as a starter in the (2004) national championship game and now he's coming off the bench," said Brandon Roy, the Huskies' resident historian. "This will be the best team I've faced."

"They're probably the most talented team in the nation," said Mike Jensen, whose 3-point shooting could open up the lane against the shot-swatting UConn. "To get a chance to go at them and to be able to play against them in the Sweet Sixteen, it's a big opportunity."

An opportunity to make history again. To go where no Washington team has been in a half-century. While many have scoffed at their chances against THE Huskies in THE Washington, this team has earned its self-confidence. The northwest Huskies have played in 10 pressure-packed games that were decided by four points or less. They have overcome double-digit leads to win at UCLA and Arizona and last week against the No. 4 seed Illinois.

"Any time you're able to do things that previous teams haven't done or that people doubt you for-it's always fun to be the underdog and prove people wrong," said Jensen, who was 2 of 5 from the arc in the "upset" of Illinois. "And I think we've been that underdog a lot this year. Going through those adverse situations has helped prepare us and make it this far in the Tournament."

"It gives us a lot of confidence because we're battle-tested," said Bobby Jones, a key stopper Friday night. "We've been down at UCLA and Arizona and those are the toughest places to play on the road in our conference.

"When we get to the Tournament and we're put in that situation," Jones said, pausing as Dentmon dribbled by with a shout-out, "just naturally we know that we can win games because it's not like we've never been put in this position before. And that's a great feeling to have. No matter what happens the game isn't over because you know you can come back if you put your mind to it."

Not only have the younger players, like Dentmon and Ryan Appleby, handled pressure situations, but with the addition of Jon Brockman, this team has more size to deal with a Sweet 16 opponent.

"Last year's team, we were really small," Roy said Thursday. "We tended to give up a lot of easy buckets around the basket. Whenever you start a Nate (Robinson), 5-8, and Will Conroy, 6-1, and you have backside rotations, those guys are smaller when they're getting hands up on shots. But now you say Brandon Roy, 6-6, Bobby Jones, 6-7, and those are your perimeter players, I think we're a little better inside keeping teams out of the paint.

"More than anything I think we're more physical," he said in preparation for the long UConn team. "Our size is average across the board, but I think it plays to our advantage a little bit (in comparison to last year)."

The seeds of an upset by the Montlake Malamutes will start on the defensive end against a team that Romar was very complimentary of. If the UW forwards hold their own, the marquee match-ups on the perimeter could swing the game. Jones, who Romar compared to pros Michael Cooper and Stacey Augman, joins an underrated defensive backcourt in Roy and Dentmon.

"Marcus Williams obviously is a big key to what they are doing," said Romar, who made some pivotal adjustments against Illinois. "He is brilliant with the basketball. Not only can he distribute extremely well, he can score. He reminds me of Mark Jackson, when Mark Jackson was at St. Johns. Not the quickest guy on the floor, but he gets to the same places that the quickest guy on the floor gets to. He has a strong upper body. Anderson has to be one of the best shooters in the country. He has good size so he can get his shot off. He has good lift. We know how talented Rudy Gay is. They have six potential pros on their team."

But like Arizona displayed against Villanova, which finished tied atop the Big East with UConn after splitting regular season games, the perimeter athleticism of the Pac-10 teams can bring unexpected disruption. Roy shared that the tenacity of this team might give it a better shot of advancing past the Sweet 16.

"I think that we have a lot of fight in us this year that might be the (main) difference," said the All-American. "Last year we were a No. 1 seed, maybe we got a little lax. This year everybody is hungry and everybody wants more."

If UConn collapses on Roy, the effectiveness of the kick-outs will be crucial. The Huskies of the purple persuasion will likely have to hit six or more 3-pointers. In checking UConn's weapons, the UDub will have to stay out of foul trouble. Washington can ill-afford to have one of the seniors or Dentmon limited to less than 28-30 minutes. The Huskies of the pale persuasion will look to continue their rebounding dominance, while the UDub has shown a greater ability to create turnovers and steals. How those two strengths materialize will be interesting to watch.

"We have a chip on our shoulder," Roy said of how much they've been discounted, being called "the other" Huskies. "UConn they deserve everything that they get. They have won two national championships in the last ten years. They have been a great program. We feel that we are on the rise, we feel like Arizona and UCLA and programs like that on the West Coast get more credit than us because they have accomplished more things than we have. We need to go out there and try to use that as motivation.

"They are going out there and getting all of (the attention and accolades) because they have won a national championship or been to the Final Four. We know that in order for us to accomplish those goals or one day have Washington looked at in that way, we have to tear that wall down. We need to beat Connecticut and go to the Elite Eight and to the Final Four."

The purple Huskies' chances of knocking off the No. 1 seed hinge on several things, but they have a weapon that is hard to slow, much less stop-Brandon Roy.

"Jim Harrick used to say that great players take their teams to great heights," said Romar, an assistant for UCLA's 1995 national champions. "Obviously it is a team game, but when you have someone who is as talented as Brandon and who can go out there and, I have said this about him a bunch of times in the last month, he can go out there and assess the game, and see where there is a weakness, or what his team needs, and then go out there and give it to you--that is a winner."

A No. 1 seed, Duke, has already fallen. Two No. 2s have been ousted. The other half of the D.C. bracket is filled with the unexpected. It's hard to rule out Roy and the Huskies, who have won 10 of their last 11, being a winner again.

That's what history-making teams do. They win when it's not expected.



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