Huskies seeing Crimson

LOS ANGELES – The Washington Huskies knew coming into the 2007 Pac-10 Tournament that their road would be as rocky as the one Robert Johnson used to travel in Texas in the early 1900's. The Hellhound on the Huskies' trail Thursday is a familiar one – the Washington State Cougars. The two in-state foes clash Thursday night for pride and the right to move on for a chance at a tournament title.

Typically, a Washington-Washington State matchup in men's basketball would be much the same as an Apple Cup in football – decidedly in the Huskies' favor. But life in 2007 has been flipped on its head. Case in point; the No. 2 seed Cougars were expected to come in dead last if you believed the Pac-10 writers' pre-season poll. Instead they went 13-5 in conference and WSU Head Coach Tony Bennett won Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors without breaking much of a sweat.

It's been quite the Cinderella year for the pumas from the Palouse, but beating up on the Huskies isn't exactly new. In fact it's been over two years since UW has tasted in-state success. And it still stings.

"They are a great team," Washington sophomore forward Jon Brockman said of their next opponent. "For me personally, never having beaten them, it's a big game and we know they are great on defense and great on offense. We have to come out and have a great game."

A ‘great game' is not a term you would use to describe the last four games between the two. When you combine the gritty, defense-driven play of WSU with the unpredictable, roller-coaster ride the Huskies usually go on from game to game, expect a low-scoring, possession-by-possession Maalox masher. And the only other time in-state rivals met up in a 2 versus 7 Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinal game was when No. 2 Arizona beat No. 7 ASU 73-56 in 2002, so history is not smiling on UW right now.

If Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar hadn't already hit the nearest Walgreen's to load up on Tums, he probably will if the Huskies are fortunate enough to get by the Cougars and move on. "It's another game we have to play," he said after the Huskies took care of Arizona State 59-51 Wednesday night. "Whether it's a rival or someone we have never played before, we can't consider any of that. We have to be concerned with what we're about."

And what the Huskies have been about lately is offensive inconsistency. In the move from being a transition-based, full-out running team to one that is focused on making sure their top two offensive weapons – Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman – are being fed in the post, there have been a lot of stumbling blocks along the way. But the Huskies know one thing they can do should affect that inconsistency; an all-out effort on the defensive side of the ball.

"We have to defend," Romar said, matter-of-factly. "Last time we did a better job, at our place. I don't think we had an offensive rhythm the first time out, and you have to credit them for that. They are the type of team that can make those things happen. We have to do the basics. We have to defend and we have to take care of the basketball and we have to be very sound."

"We've been preaching all year long that our defense gets us into our offense, gets us going, gets us energized," Brockman added. "We just have to come out and be nails on defense."

It's that hope that will turn some of the Huskies' offensive lapses into a thing of the past. What they can't get away from as easily is their 75-47 beatdown in Pullman, the worst UW loss in the history of the series. They only lost by four in the Seattle rematch, and much of that had to do with the fact that Hawes was available to play. And even though he hasn't tasted victory against his in-state rival, that hasn't stopped him from talking big about taking the Cougars down.

"I can't wait," he said. "They beat us four times in a row, and it's time to put an end to it. I think last game we played a pretty good game; I just think we couldn't make a couple plays at the end. They're a great team, they are extremely disciplined in the way they defend, and it can take a lot our of your system. We just have to attack their defense and come out like we did after our tough start tonight."

‘Tough start' is being kind. The Huskies were down 11 with 8:59 left in the first half to the worst team in the conference. They were out of whack offensively and sieve-like on defense. Nothing was going right. "At first, we weren't our normal selves," Brockman said. "We weren't ready. We weren't playing the way we play when we're successful. It took us being down by 10 before we put our foot down. Defense generates so much for our team and gets us going. We just had to put our foot down and say that's enough. We had to chip away at their lead."

Brockman himself wasn't immune to the early-game blues against Arizona State, drawing his first foul almost immediately. And three quick fouls in the second half forced the conference's leading rebounder to the bench with 8:37 left in the game. His team had to steal over four minutes with him riding pine.

"I wasn't getting my money's worth on my fouls," he said with a chuckle. But his words underscore a deeper issue for the Huskies, one they'll have to contend with head-on Thursday with a much, much better team – where will they find the consistency needed to eliminate the rough patches?

In this area, Washington is still very much a work in progress. Against Arizona State, they had eight ‘offensive droughts' of 90 seconds or more, and three that were over three minutes long. Granted, some of that was against a very aggressive ASU matchup zone, one that doesn't allow for offenses to get very comfortable.

"If we would have started the game with more energy that would have sent a message to the team that we're going to bring it all night long," Brockman said.

"We have a lot of respect for that team, just based on their record against us, but at the same time if we did a couple of things down the stretch last time - if we took care of the ball the last four minutes and didn't make the kind of stupid plays that we did make - we could have won the game. We put ourselves in position to win the game. We have to come out and bring it.

We can't have lapses like we had tonight, because Washington State will capitalize on all of our mistakes."

And it will be five and a row…and counting.

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