UW carrying the torch for Pac-10

Hana, Maui - So the Pac-10 is down. That's what they tell us anyways - "they" being the talking heads back east who are limited to Sports Center highlights to form their opinion of programs on the left coast. In this case they are partly right: UCLA is down, and as far as the east coast is concerned, the Bruins are the Pac-10.

Which is why the Maui Invitational is so important for the University of Washington and the Pac-10 at large. And the irony is, the Pac-10 is off to a pretty good start to the 2011 season. In fact they are 20 and 5 the first week of Pac-10 play, a far cry from last season's disastrous pre-conference schedule, and an early indication that the league has improved.

But the Pac-10 needs Washington to show up and play to their potential in Maui. No pre-conference tournament captures the attention of college basketball fans everywhere more than the Maui Invitational, and the spotlight will be fixed, at least partially on Washington. The Huskies are generally viewed as one of the frontrunners to capture the tournament championship, along with No. 2-ranked Michigan State. The potential second round match up between UW and Kentucky would be a national headline-grabber.

But before UW fans get carried away with delusions of grandeur, the Husky stopper, the anti-Romar - Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers, await. Now the Cavs aren't very good - a mediocre Stanford squad blew them out 81-60 last week - but that doesn't really matter. Bennett's teams at Washington State didn't record a 7-1 record against Washington because of superior talent. They won because Bennett's system is tailor-made to slow down the high-octane Dawgs.

And as the Huskies uninspired victory over the Eastern Washington Eagles Wednesday made abundantly clear, Washington is far from a finished product.

That isn't to say that fans shouldn't be excited about the Huskies' prospects in Maui, and the rest of the season. Quite to the contrary, Maui provides the Huskies one of those rare, program-changing opportunities to promote UW on a national stage, against some of college basketball's truly legendary teams.

Washington has been on the threshold of being perceived as a legitimate power on the national stage for several years. Close, but not quite. They haven't had the signature moment to push them over the top. The Maui Invitational could be that moment. In much the same way the Great Alaska Shootout announced UW into the college basketball discussion eight years ago, the Huskies are going to have their shot at taking a gargantuan leap forward.

A big showing by Washington cements the Huskies as a top-10 team, though the Virginia opener doesn't mean much by itself. The Cavaliers are pulling up the rear in a stacked ACC, but the name recognition alone brings schedule credibility.

A victory over Kentucky however, is another matter entirely. Kentucky is hands down the most hated program in all of college basketball. Washington will find a one-sided captive national audience cheering them on. Nearly every basketball commentator in the country is licking their chops at the opportunity to trash the undefeated Wildcats and professional basketball's most enigmatic personality - John Calipari.

A win over UK will turn the Huskies - for one news cycle, at least - the most talked about team in college basketball, featured in every sports telecast and publication in the country. But at the end of the day, despite all of the storylines about ineligible frosh phenom Enes Kanter and Portland wunderkind Terrence Jones spurning the Huskies, this is about basketball.

A Kentucky matchup, featuring two of the most athletic, exciting programs in the county, is a college hoops fan's dream. The game pace alone should be torrid, and the Wildcats' starting rotation has the athletes to match up head-to-head with Washington, though the Huskies have a huge edge in experience and depth.

A Maui Invitational Championship match-up would likely pit the Huskies against No. 2-ranked Michigan State. Tom Izzo's Spartans are deep, polished and feature an even more star-studded backcourt than Washington does. That match-up wouldn't showcase the up-tempo eye candy a Kentucky match-up would. Michigan State will test the Huskies mettle with a more brutal, physical battle - a true preview of what the Huskies would eventually face in a deep NCAA tournament run.

A victory over the Spartans likely thrusts the Huskies into the conversation when talking about the top-five teams in the country. It also propels them into an infinitely more valuable (from a program exposure/recruiting stand-point) National Championship talk during the opening month of the season. At that point, they become masters of their own destiny rather than at the mercy of fickle east coast prognosticators who are in bed long before the Pac-10 ever graces the boob tube.

Regionally, the Huskies carry the banner as the West Coast's top program. The UW basketball program has cemented itself as a marquee destination for the west coast's most talented athletes. Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar is hands-down the most popular coach in the west, despite the fact the he recruits the old-fashioned way: By forging honest relationships and mentoring young men with a charismatic, fatherly approach in one of the country's most exciting and physically demanding systems.

The national appeal is obvious. Washington is known, but like the region they come from, they're on the fringe. Even rival Gonzaga conjures up a higher profile image nationally than the Huskies do, thanks to a cushy ESPN TV contract. A top-5 ranking grants them a seat at the table with some elite company, joining true national powers like Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and North Carolina at an all-you-can-eat buffet of program promoting Spors Center accolades and newspaper attaboys. Membership has its privileges.

It all sounds nice in theory. Getting there is the hard part. But this is a good Husky team, potentially a great one. They've got the horses to be a legitimate contender, and for the first time they have the size to match their back court prowess. That is all well and good, provided they don't succumb to ego on a team where there won't be enough shots to please all the extraordinary talent.

So let the sock puppets sing their Pac-10 swan song; meanwhile, Husky fans can sit back and enjoy what could turn out to be one of the most memorable Thanksgivings in a long, long time.

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