Huskies happy to be dancing

SEATTLE - Quincy Pondexter had never experienced it before; the rush of adrenaline as you wait for your team's name to be called as one of the 65 entrants for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. His first two years, the Washington Huskies had struck out, but this time they were virtually guaranteed a spot because of their outright Pac-10 regular-season title.

To say it was nerve-wracking for the junior from Fresno would be selling his emotions short. It didn't help matters that Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon were sitting right next to him, telling him how nervous they were. "I was shaking the whole time," Pondexter told Dawgman.com Sunday after the Huskies were announced as the No. 4 seed in the West region. They will face No. 13 seed Mississippi State Thursday at the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore.

"We were hoping we could stay close to home and got that wish," UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said.

"Being so close to home, for me personally friends and family will get to come down to watch, so that will be really special," added Brockman - one of four current Huskies to experience Bracket Fever at least once in their Washington careers.

"That was the best basketball I've ever played," Dentmon admitted, reminiscing back to his days as a true freshman, nailing a four-point play on his way to the Huskies' defeat of Illinois in San Diego, punching the Hoop Dawgs' ticket to the 2006 Sweet Sixteen. They lost a heartbreaking overtime game to Connecticut in Washington, D.C., but just might get a chance to exact a measure of revenge against the Huskies if they beat Mississippi State and the winner of Purdue/Northern Iowa.

Washington and UNI are the only two teams in the entire field that have to battle back-to-back major conference tournament champions to lead off their dance ticket.

"Whatever seed you are, you compete against whomever the committee matches you up against," Romar said. "I am surprised that (Mississippi State) did what they did and still only ended up a 13 seed."

"They are a better team than that ranking," added freshman guard Isaiah Thomas. "But we'll be ready for them, they'll be ready for us. It'll be war."

And as much as they wanted to stay close to home, it's not as if Portland has been a safe haven for the Huskies. They lost their first game of the season to the Portland Pilots.

"We learned from it and now we're a different team," Brockman said of that loss. "We play a lot better as a group now."

"That Portland game was nasty," Thomas added. "But it's behind us and we're ready for Mississippi State now."

The same could be said of the Bulldogs. The only way they were going to get their dance card punched is if they won the SEC tournament, and they did exactly that. And they did it with balanced scoring. Mississippi State averaged five scorers in double-figures during league play, led by prolific shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado. The 6-foot-9 junior from Brownsville, Tenn. rejected 165 shots in 35 games this season for the Bulldogs.

"He's dangerous," Brockman said of Varnado. "He owns that paint. He's definitely someone we're going to have to keep an eye on."

The 6-foot-7 senior forward from Snohomish - the no. 1 all-time in rebounding and no. 2 all-time in scoring at Washington - knows Varnado from his AAU days and has also followed the Bulldogs from afar. He admitted MSU is one of a bunch of teams he's tried to watch, devouring Sports Center highlights daily.

"They are a tough team," he added. "They are going to come out swinging."

Thomas, during his days at South Kent Prep in Connecticut, tangled with Bulldog guard Dee Bost's Hargrave Prep team, losing that game 90-68. Romar happened to be at that game, watching the soon-to-be Husky score 18 points, and he certainly paid attention to Bost and his 21 points, especially the 5-12 shooting from 3-point range.

"He's a scorer, he's a good guard," Thomas said of Bost.

At this point, the Huskies aren't too concerned about the MSU scouting report. They just want to soak in the moment and enjoy being invited back to the dance. It definitely beats not watching it at all, which is what Brockman decided to do last year. Their eventual CBI invite that Sunday night last year wasn't accompanied by all the fanfare, autographs and applause the Huskies received Sunday.

All the team got was a text, letting them know they'd be playing.

"We're just blessed to be in this tournament," Brockman said, eager to knock all the dust off the post-season cliches. "We'll take it a game at a time. You can't look too far ahead. We need to worry about what we're doing."

Washington is one of six Pac-10 teams to make the NCAA Tournament: Arizona, Arizona State, California, UCLA and USC were also given invitations. "I think it's great," Romar said. "There has been some talk about the Pac-10 being down this year. To see over half the Pac-10 in the NCAA Tournament field, I think it shows that the conference is a little better than people gave it credit for."

"It's a big stage," Thomas said, noting that the Rose Garden will be the second-straight NBA arena the Huskies will play in. This past week they played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles during the Pac-10 tournament.

"The lights are really bright now."

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