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January 26, 2006

Huskies can add to list of firsts in Bay Area

Fresh off the decisive defeat of the Ducks, the history-busting Huskies head to the Bay Area this weekend in search of new standards. Clutching a four-game winning streak and the first four-game streak over Oregon since 1985, the first-place Dawgs can tie the 1976 team for the best UW start in 53 years by defeating California Thursday night. The enigmatic Cardinal awaits for a nationally televised showdown Sunday evening in problematic Palo Alto.

Washington (16-2, tied with UCLA atop the Pac-10 at 5-2) bounced back from its uncharacteristic shooting woes versus Oregon State last week with a 52-percent effort in the 78-59 victory over the Ducks. While few expected the Huskies to be as competitive as last season's squad, this team tied its predecessor's record after 18 games. Despite the less challenging non-conference schedule, they have accomplished several things that last year's squad did not, namely defeat Gonzaga, win at Pauley Pavilion, and grab a weekend road sweep.

The latest challenges for the 10th-ranked Huskies are the Golden Bears and the Cardinal, teams Washington hasn't swept on the road since 1985. The Huskies' 106-73 win last year in Berkeley-the highest point total ever for a UW team at an opponent's arena-snapped a four-game losing streak at Cal. But the Purple People haven't pulled away from Stanford's Maples Pavilion with a win since 1993.

"The Bay Area is one of, if not the most difficult road trip, for us out there," said coach Lorenzo Romar. "I've never as a player, assistant at UCLA, or head coach remembered having too much success at Stanford or Cal. Those places are not only tough to play, but they put out some good basketball teams."

The Cal Bears (10-6, 4-3) put the Pac-10 on notice with a sweep through Los Angeles on the first weekend of conference play. But starting with a lackluster home loss to Oregon State, the Bears have dropped three of their last four games. Their 7-1 home record, however, is hard to overlook in large part because of the looming presence of forward Leon Powe and 6-foot-11 center DeVon Hardin. Powe is leading the league in scoring (19.8 ppg, tied with Hassan Adams) and rebounding (10.2 rpg), while Hardin is the leading shot blocker (2.0 bpg) since the start of Pac-10 play.

Both the Huskies' starting big men, Jon Brockman and Jamaal Williams, will be giving away several inches to the Bears' bigs in a match-up to watch. Against lengthy frontlines like Washington State's and Oregon State's, the pair has had some struggles. Brockman was limited to a single point and five rebounds in the shadow of Cougar Robbie Cowgill while Williams was harried into a four-point, five-rebound night by OSU's shot blockers Kyle Jeffers and Nick DeWitz.

Cal's frontcourt depth took a hit when their 6-foot-10 sixth man, Rod Benson, tore cartilage in his knee last week. As a result, the production of Husky reserves Mike Jensen and Hans Gasser could be crucial in the battle on the blocks. While Hardin has been a solid rebounder (7.3 rpg) and scorer (9.4 ppg), he's had a tendency to fall into foul trouble recently and might struggle to guard Jensen and Gasser on the perimeter. Six-foot-5 freshman Theo Robertson has inherited the bulk of Benson's minutes and could be exploited down low if coach Ben Braun goes with a smaller lineup. Robertson scored a combined 21 points in the Bears' split in the Arizona desert last week.

The frustration from the previous UW blowout at Haas Pavilion, where the Huskies hit a school-record 16 3-balls, was still vivid for Braun on Tuesday.

"We were struggling in last year's game. We would try to pressure the ball, and they would drive us. When we backed up to play the passing lanes, they were shooting their season-high 3-pointers on us," said the Cal coach. "This is a hard match-up for us. This team gives us, and the league, some problems. Apparently, they are giving the country some problems because they lead the country in scoring."

The Golden Bears are better prepared to counter the Husky perimeter scoring this season as their three-guard attack has been a big part of the recent improvement. Junior Ayinde Ubaka, their nominal point guard, has emerged as the Bears' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.9 points per game in conference action. With fourteen double-figure scoring games in Cal's 16 contests, Ubaka has set his career-high four times this season, topping out at 29 points versus Oregon earlier this month. Streaky senior Richard Midgley, averaging 9.9 points so far, handled much of the point guard duties at ASU last week, but was held scoreless at Arizona for just the second time in his 101-game Cal career. While the Bears have committed the fewest turnovers amongst Pac-10 teams, their assists production (less than 12 apg) has been in the conference's lower third. The lack of playmaking has been countered by a league-best 3-point shooting percentage of .388. Ubaka (35 of 88), Midgley (31-71) and guard Omar Wilkes (16-32) lead the way.

If the Huskies can keep Powe, a consistent interior scorer since returning from two season-ending knee surgeries, in reasonable check and contest the perimeter shots they have a good chance of running their record to 17-2. While some balanced scoring will be important, a combined 35 or more points from Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones would go a long way towards tying the best UW start in the last half-century.

The challenge doesn't get any easier when the Dawgs head across the San Francisco Bay to Stanford. The Cardinal (8-7, 4-3) have won four of their last five games-their lone setback being an overtime loss at Arizona-after struggling to begin the season. They limped to a 4-6 start, including embarrassing losses to UC Irvine, Montana, and UC Davis, as Matt Haryasz suffered two ankle sprains, guard Chris Hernandez played through a separated shoulder, and swingman Dan Grunfeld dealt with inconsistent production following the ACL surgery that cost him the 2005 season.

But the Tree has endured to become a Pac-10 contender again as Haryasz has returned to the level of a conference Player of the Year candidate. The 6-foot-11 power forward will be the biggest challenge of Brockman's young career. Haryasz was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week following his 52-point, 17-board output in the desert. Despite missing a number of games and having several cut short following the sprains, the senior is third in Pac-10 scoring (18.4 ppg) and second in rebounding (9.0 rpg). The collective post defense will again be an issue, with Jensen likely called on for extended minutes. The improved UW depth on the blocks this season gives Romar a few more competent bodies and fouls to throw in the mix, but Haryasz has made teams pay at the free throw line, shooting more than 81 percent for the league-leading squad (77 percent as a team).

Grunfeld hasn't had the same explosiveness as he did prior to the Feb. 2005 injury, but has contributed a solid 13.4 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. Hernandez, the less-heralded member of the senior trio, has improved his scoring numbers in conference play (to 13.6 ppg), while reducing the number of turnovers. The scrappy guard trails only Roy in 3-point FG percentage in Pac-10 action (.514, 18-25, to Roy's .600, 15-25). Freshman Mitch Johnson, who led Seattle's O'Dea High School to two state championships, has settled in nicely at the other guard spot and is matching Hernandez' assist rate in conference play (3.86 apg). Johnson hit two clutch free throws in the waning seconds to help secure the 70-64 victory at Arizona State last Saturday.

Beyond the injury disruptions, shooting percentages tell the tale of the Cardinal's woes. The trends have improved, but Stanford is still last in the conference in FG percentage (.421) for the season, and second-to-last in FG percentage defense (.444) and 3-point FG defense (.370). Washington has a noticeable statistical advantage in several key categories from games against Pac-10 opponents. The UW has a scoring margin of +7.4, Stanford -0.1; and the Dawgs have a rebounding margin of +8.6, The Farm +1.0.

Another interesting stat is turnover margin in Pac-10 games, where Stanford is sixth in the conference (-0.57), while the Dawgs are third (+1.14). Relatively minor differences like this could be magnified in a series that was decided by narrow margins in last year's three clashes. The Huskies won 76-73 in Seattle on Jan. 2, while the Tree fell on the Huskies' conference title hopes in the final game of the regular season, 77-67. Stanford used a 40-6 advantage from the free throw line to knock the UDub out of first place, but the Dawgs got revenge with a 66-63 victory in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals. You would hate to see a close game be determined predominantly at the free throw line like last year's game on The Farm, when the Huskies were whistled for 27 fouls in comparison to the Cardinal's 11. By most accounts, the Pac-10 officiating has been pretty uneven game to game, crew to crew this season.

More telling than Stanford's overall record is the fact that they've won six consecutive games at Maples Pavilion, the site of 12 straight losses for the Huskies. But this UW squad has gained enough confidence not to be bullied by recent history. They are, after all, first in the conference in scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding, and assist/turnover ratio. And they have even won several times when their biggest gun, Brandon Roy (averaging a league-leading 22.4 ppg in Pac-10 play), has been quieted.

Yes, it's a long shot to claim back-to-back road sweeps. But don't tell that to this group of Dawgs. They're too young to realize that a 4-0 road record would be the school's best conference start in 53 years. And they're definitely too young to remember that the '53 Huskies were last UW team to travel to the Final Four. Well then, maybe we should wait to tell them.


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