Advantage or not, Huskies just have to play

PORTLAND - Jon Brockman came out to take part in Washington's 40-minute practice session per usual. He threw down some dunks while fans cheered. There was certainly nothing to suggest any lingering effects from a broken nose suffered within the first two minutes of the Arizona State-Washington semi-final game at last weekend's Pac-10 Tournament - no clear mask, no black eyes.

Nothing more than a proboscis gone slightly askew.

"I came in with a mask, I thought about leaving with a mask, but I decided to leave the mask off for now," Brockman said with a chuckle Wednesday before the Huskies' workout at the Rose Garden in preparation for their NCAA first-round battle with Mississippi State at 1:45 p.m. Thursday. It's doubtful Brockman could stay masked and anonymous for long, considering he leads the nation in double-doubles with 58 and is the Huskies' all-time leading rebounder.

The 4-13 match-up would certainly seem to favor Brockman and the Huskies on a few different accounts. For one thing, they will be playing only three hours from home and the friendly confines of Bank of America Arena. The Bulldogs will be traveling roughly five hours by plane, and the farthest they've been to the west coast was when they traveled to Arkansas to play the Razorbacks January 10th.

"There are so many Husky fans that can come from Washington and are going to be at this game," UW sophomore Justin Holiday said. "Obviously we're going to have a lot more fans than Mississippi State, so I think we'll have a home court advantage a little bit."

"It's a big opportunity to play in front of family," added UW sophomore guard Venoy Overton. Overton is originally from Portland, but hasn't really been back for an extended time since the 7th grade. Junior center Joe Wolfinger is also a Portland native. "It's real close to home so we should be excited. It definitely feels like a different place because it's not something we're used to, but just the fact that we know we're close to home, it feels good."

Overton can't sate his family's need for tickets; each player is given six tickets to use at their disposal, and the sophomore guard is looking for more despite having well more than 10 family members set to root him on.

"My phone is still blowing up," he said.

Washington has not played in nearly a week, their last game coming via a 10-point loss to Arizona State on Friday. Mississippi State took the SEC Tournament Championship game Sunday over Tennessee, winning four hard-fought games in four days to earn their crown.

Being so close to home, it's reasonable to assume the Huskies would travel extremely well, and they will. But there's 20,630 seats in the Rose Garden, and the Huskies - like the other seven teams playing Thursday in Portland - only received an allotment of 500 tickets. The AD was able to scrounge around and find another couple of hundred, but that won't feed the masses that make up Husky Nation. For every purple-and-gold loving fan that will make the three-hour trek south from Seattle, there's probably a few more that won't go simply because they weren't able to secure seats ahead of time, or just don't want to get scalped.

So who has the other tickets? Well, Portland college basketball fans have scooped them up since they went on sale a long time ago, leading some to believe that what might have looked like a home-court advantage on paper might turn out to be something a little different. The long-standing athletics feud between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington Huskies has been heavily chronicled; how that will play out Thursday is anybody's guess.

If you ask the kids from SEI (Self Enhancement, Inc.), a program based in Northeast Portland designed to help underserved youth in the community, they were on hand Wednesday to watch Washington's shootaround. They were begging Overton to dunk the ball, chanting O-VER-TON on more than one occasion.

"We've been talking about this for the longest time," said Overton. "As soon as this day came, this is the only thing we're focused on."

If you ask Mississippi State Head Coach Rick Stansbury, he'd love to turn the geographic tables in his favor. "I understand there is not a lot of love between the two teams, so if Oregon fans want to help us, we want all the help we can get," he said during Wednesday's press conference. "Bulldogs love the Ducks!"

"I just know how loyal Northwest fans are," Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said when asked. "And I know the loyalty of the Oregon fans. I know the loyalty of the Gonzaga fans. I know the loyalty of our fans. So I'm just pretty positive that they'll all cheer for the Northwest teams. I just kind of took that as a given."

Bonus points if you were able to detect the sarcasm from that quote.

Who knows, maybe one of them will root for us, because we're in the same state as Gonzaga and in the same league as Oregon," added Brockman.

Regardless of the circumstances, Washington will be at a neutral site playing against a team riding high after being left for dead three weeks ago. "They are hot, they are ready to get it going," UW forward Darnell Gant said. "We've been expecting to be here. We have to think about getting the job done and moving to the next round.

"We're just ready to bounce back. Every time we've lost a game we were able to get it together as a team and bounce back the next game. Hopefully we'll be able to do that the next game, especially with the stakes so high being in the NCAA Tournament."

Gant added that he wouldn't really be able to tell if he would be able to feed off the crowd's energy until he went out there Thursday afternoon and saw it for himself. In other words - if the crowd is behind the Huskies, it's a bonus. But it won't be a given.

"It definitely matters," added MSU guard Barry Stewart. "It's good to have people cheering for you instead of booing. But we will hit the floor regardless of what the crowd does. But it would still be nice to have the people rooting for us."

Brockman said that it's best for the Huskies to treat Thursday's game like a business trip, like they've tried to do with every game this year. "It's another court, a different arena," he said, pulling out the old Gene Hackman routine from Hoosiers. "The hoops are the same height, the court is going to be just as long, the 3-point line is going to be in the same place - so you have to just come out and play."

According to Lenny Wilkens, Quincy Pondexter has been Washington's 'x' factor during their 25-8 campaign. The Huskies just might have another 'x' factor going for them when it comes to playing in the Rose Garden: This is Brandon Roy's house. The former Husky All-American has made the Garden his own, and according to UW freshman guard Isaiah Thomas, Roy has left some 'magic' out there for the Hoop Dawgs.

"It's an experience of a lifetime, so you can't let it get to you," he said when asked about any advice Roy may have given to him about his first trip to the Big Dance. "You have to try and embrace it, play hard and try the best you can."

"You can always have fun, but the only way you can really have fun is to win," Brockman added. "We have to be focused and determined and enjoy it after the game."

Regardless of the makeup of the crowd Thursday, these Huskies plan to bring it.

"We'll be ready," Thomas said. Top Stories