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February 26, 2009

Arizona State at Washington Preview

Hanging from beams above Washington's home floor is a banner recognizing every major accomplishment by the Huskies basketball program.

Except there's one glaring omission: Washington's 1953 Pacific Coast Conference title isn't listed.

Why is that relevant in 2009? Because the absent 1953 team represents the last time Washington won an outright conference title. Accomplishing that feat in 2009 can become far more plausible for the No. 21 Huskies with a win Thursday night over No. 14 Arizona State.

The Huskies (20-7, 11-4) hold a half-game lead over the Sun Devils (21-5, 10-4) in the conference race. A victory would put them two games up in the win column with only two left to play, and depending on what happens with the other conference teams on Thursday, the Huskies could potentially clinch the conference crown as early as Saturday.

All this from a team picked to finish fifth in the conference race before the season.

"This is probably the biggest game I have had since I have been a Husky," said Washington's bruising forward Jon Brockman.

The Huskies star senior knows a thing or two about big games. Brockman's first season on Washington's campus was capped by the Huskies run to NCAA regional semifinals and a thrilling overtime loss to Connecticut in the round of 16. Washington hasn't returned to the NCAA tournament since, and a win over the Sun Devils would only bolster a resume that already has Washington headed to the tournament.

It would also be a major step in erasing the Huskies massive gap in conference crowns.

Washington tied for the Pac-10 title in both 1984 and 1985 and won the Pac-10 tournament title in 2005. Otherwise, the Huskies history for the last half-century is dotted with a few second- and third-place finishes and plenty of seasons in the bottom half of the league.

No matter how things shake out with the other teams chasing the Huskies - ASU, UCLA and California - if Washington wins its final three games, the conference title belongs to them.

"It's fun to be involved in these types of contests," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "That's what any competitor plays for to play against the best and play at the highest level."

The Sun Devils would like nothing better than to spoil the Huskies party plans and set up the possibility of having their own party in a little over a week. While Washington's conference title history is relatively paltry, the Sun Devils' is nonexistent. Since joining the Pac-10 for the 1978-79 season, Arizona State has never won a conference title, finishing second twice.

Erasing that history, coupled with a ton of momentum and having won decisively in Seattle a year ago, is fueling the Sun Devils' confidence.

"This is a great situation we're in. We have a great team, great chemistry, and we're rebuilding a program. It feels that we're all doing it together and having fun with it too," ASU star James Harden said. "It's definitely at the top. It's a great program; we have great coaches, great players, and great teammates. Overall, it is an exciting buzz around here and it is unbelievable."

Arizona State got a wake-up call at the end of January courtesy of the Huskies. As part of a lost weekend at home - the Sun Devils lost to Washington State previously - the Huskies convincingly handled the Sun Devils in an 84-71 victory. Washington got 30 points from Justin Dentmon and another 25 from Isaiah Thomas, while holding Harden to just 15 points.

But the Sun Devils have rolled off five straight, including last Sunday's 70-68 win over rival Arizona.

"We got a lot of stuff left to do in these last four games," ASU forward Jeff Pendergraft said. "They're going to be the biggest games we have; they could make or break our season and cost or get us a conference championship. That feels real good to say."

Give your predictions here!




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