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March 9, 2006

The postseason begins with a Duck-Dawg scrap

What kind of year has it been in the Pac-10? Unpredictable enough that the second-seeded Huskies may have had a few players sigh, discretely, with relief when the last-place team got knocked off in the opening round of the conference tournament. Instead of concern over facing the Washington State defense and the specter of losing three games to a rival, the Dawgs will deal with the challenge of defeating the Ducks for the third time this year. Washington's defense of the Pac-10 Tourney title begins with a Quack Attack team that gave them a battle in Eugene last month.

While several Huskies like Brandon Roy and Jon Brockman were eager for a shot at the only team they haven't beaten this year, others seemed less enthused for a third tangle with the Cougars. Given that the Huskies have sown up an NCAA Tournament bid, the mission this weekend at the Staples Center in Los Angeles is to prepare for the Big Dance by playing strong basketball against quality competition. A team like Oregon, with their athleticism and perimeter shooting, is a good-sized hurdle on the track to Selection Sunday.

The seventh-seeded Ducks ended the Dick Bennett era at WSU with a 66-55 victory Wednesday night. The Cougars made one last push for their colorful, if occasionally grumpy coach by cutting a 19-point second-half deficit down to eight, but in the year-long theme for the football and basketball Cougs, they fell short in the waning minutes. Chamberlain Oguchi, who became a permanent starter against the Huskies on Feb. 16, got the Ducks off on the good (webbed) foot with five 3-pointers in the first seven minutes of the game. The sophomore they call Champ scored 15 of the team's first 17 points, finishing the half with 21 of his game-high 26 points. Malik Hairston, the All-Pac-10 honorable mention swingman who indicated he'll return to Eugene next season, chimed in with 21 points.

The previous Duck-Dawg meeting was almost as much of a nail-biter as last Saturday's victory over Arizona. The Huskies took the lead for good on a put-back by Brockman with 45 seconds remaining in the 75-72 win. Coach Lorenzo Romar has cited this game as the only letdown in defensive intensity in the eight-game winning streak. Oregon shot 53-percent for the game as Oguchi and Hairston got hot from the arc in the second half. After the Ducks started 1 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half, Oguchi finished with 4-for-9 shooting from the arc for 21 points, and Hariston hit 2 of 4 for 18 points.

The decisive stat was the Huskies' 22-6 rebounding advantage in the second half. The Dawgs grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and had a 26-4 dominance in second-chance points. Jamaal Williams and Brockman were effective cleaning the glass, each with seven boards, posting 17 and 14 points, respectively. While the inconsistent Ducks have some sizable frames, their leading rebounder is often Jordan Kent, the 6-foot-5 forward. The coach's son grabbed 11 boards against the Cougars.

The No. 12 Huskies are seeking their sixth consecutive downing of the Ducks, their longest streak since-you guessed it-the early Fifties. Washington has won five of its last six Pac-10 Tourney games, advancing to the title tilt the last two seasons. Last year's path was a difficult one as the Dawgs needed overtime to get past the Sun Devils in the quarterfinals, followed by a 66-63 scrap with Stanford. Last year's finalist, Arizona, will be without the service of senior guard Hassan Adams, who was suspended for the weekend after being cited for driving under the influence following the loss to the Huskies. The soap-opera Wildcats will turn to Chris Rodgers, who was kicked off the team in the middle of the season after multiple run-ins with coach Lute Olson.

Washington might be able to cement a 4-seed in the NCAA Tourney with a victory in today's nightcap. At stake for the top Pac-10 seeds, UCLA and Washington, is a shot at a 3-seed. Both schools can make a convincing argument for no worse than a 3-seed with a Pac-10 Tournament championship. If the brackets in L.A. hold true, the Huskies would next face the California Golden Bears, who are looking to earn themselves a position as a first round favorite in the Big Dance.

On the strength of three road sweeps, the Dawgs were able to match last year's 24-5 regular season record. Besides the success on the road, the biggest difference between the two squads is the interior defense and the variety of offensive weapons this season.

"The numbers would bear that this is our best defensive team since we've been here," said Romar. "If you look at points allowed and more importantly to me is field goal percentage defense. So that has helped down the stretch. When you look at role definition from earlier in the year to more recently, roles have been more defined and guys have settled in on those. That includes Brandon who felt, once the league started, more comfortable as a scorer, doing more than just distributing the ball."

In five of the last eight games, the Huskies have held their opponents under 44-percent shooting. Washington is 17-2 when it records a better shooting percentage and 14-0 when it holds the opponent under 70 points, as it has for every game since the squeaker over the Ducks.

Though the Huskies lost some perimeter quickness with the departure of Nate Robinson and Will Conroy, they have better size across the board. Bolstered by the banging presence of Brockman, the Dawgs led the Pac-10 in rebounding and rebounding margin and are 21-1 when holding an advantage on the boards.

Slightly overshadowed by Roy's remarkable February was the fact that seven Huskies have scored in double figures over the last four weeks. With Ryan Appleby and Mike Jensen hurting defenses from the outside and Justin Dentmon displaying a better shooting touch, this team can exploit a variety of match-ups and defensive priorities. Not surprisingly, they are 16-0 when four or more players score in double figures.

"With this year's team I think we're a better TEAM," Roy said Tuesday. "I feel like we can go far because everybody understands their role and everybody is fine with their role. Jon is fine with rebounding and getting put-backs. Bobby (Jones) is fine with trapping and getting transition baskets."

The Huskies return to the city where they recorded their first road sweep-something last year's squad did not accomplish all season-including the first win at Pauley Pavilion since 1987. Jones and Williams, both natives of the L.A. area, had significant games in front of family and friends.

I asked Roy which of a handful of pressure-packed games this year best prepared the Huskies for the postseason.

"I think both wins against UCLA because those are just NCAA Tournament-type games," replied the co-captain. "UCLA, they might not say it, but they still feel like they're the class of the West Coast. The fact that we beat them twice-they gave their best shots-those were Tournament-type wins. The win against Cal here was a big one and then the last game against Arizona, those games just showed me a lot.

"Now when we get in close games, I look at our guys' faces and everybody's like, 'Hey, I'm comfortable here.' We've been here before and we've won games and we've lost some, so we know what it takes. It's coming down to free throw shooting-we're doing a good job at that-and we're doing a good job executing our offense. So that definitely makes me rest a lot easier knowing that guys are maturing and we're playing our best basketball at the right time of the season."

It won't come as a surprise that Brockman was chomping at the bit on the eve of the Pac-10 Tourney. "I love tournaments. The more games the better," said the freshman forward. "Games are always the fun part (of the year), and any time you can play three in a row, that's really fun. The college level asks so much more of your body and takes away so much energy, it's going to be a lot more of a mental challenge."

With senior experience and freshman enthusiasm, the Huskies will start their postseason push hoping to add to their string of historic accomplishments. Washington has won 72 games so far over the last three seasons. They can challenge the best mark in school history-the 77 wins from 1951-53-with a strong run in Los Angeles. Their first opportunity will tip-off tonight with the FSN broadcast scheduled for 8:50 p.m.


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