University of Washington

Putting the SQUEEZE on UW's chances

The Washington Huskies conclude their preconference schedule today with a game against the University of San Francisco.

It’s one of those pairings where a win won’t do much for the nation’s perception of the Huskies or the Pacific-10 Conference, but a loss would lower it.

And that’s saying something, because the Pac-10 already ranks second-to-last among the major conferences, according to ahead of the Big Ten, but behind the so-called mid-major Atlantic 10. The Pac-10 even has been passed by the Southeastern Conference, which last season sent only two teams to the NCAA tournament.

As of now, most bracketologists see a similar fate awaiting the Pac-10 in March: two, maybe three, teams invited to the Big Dance.

That puts two kinds of pressure on No. 22 Washington (8-2).

As the Pac-10’s only ranked team, the Huskies feel they must keep winning for the good of the league. And once conference play begins Thursday, they know they must remain at or near the top of the standings or face an uneasy Selection Sunday.

“We know what is at stake,” senior Quincy Pondexter said. “Not just for representing the University of Washington, but we’re representing the Pac-10 because it’s gotten thrown under a bus so many times this season.”

This always projected as a rebuilding season for the Pac-10, which lost six players in the first round of the NBA draft, including three among the first nine selections (Arizona State’s James Harden No. 3, Arizona’s Jordan Hill No. 8 and Southern California’s DeMar DeRozan No. 9).

UCLA (4-7) lost four starters from last season. Southern Cal (8-4) lost four starters and its coach. Arizona (6-5) lost its two top players and its coach. Washington State (10-2) lost its two top scorers and its coach. Stanford (5-6) has almost started over in Johnny Dawkins’ second season after losing Anthony Goods, Lawrence Hill and Mitch Johnson. Arizona State (10-3) lost what could prove to be an irreplaceable pair in Harden and Jeff Pendergraph.

“It’s just unreasonable to expect us to be as strong as we would have been if we had retained those guys,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, whose Bears (6-4) were picked to win the league based largely on their four returning starters. “If you put those people back on the rosters at their respective schools, my goodness, this would be an unbelievable league right now. (But) we’ve had some tough losses to people that maybe you would look at and say, ‘Jeez, how’d they lose to them?’”

Among those “Jeez” losses: Oregon and UCLA each lost to Portland. The Ducks (7-4) also lost to Montana. The Bruins also lost to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. Oregon State (6-4) lost to Sacramento State and Illinois-Chicago. Stanford lost to Oral Roberts. USC lost to Loyola Marymount.

Arizona even has a “Jeez” victory, needing overtime and then a 3-pointer at the final buzzer to survive on its home floor against Lipscomb.

“We’re a very mediocre team on a quest to get better,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “That streak (of 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances) is very much in jeopardy”

However, UW coach Lorenzo Romar regularly stressed that the league will get better. All that’s needed, he says, is time for talented players to mesh into productive teams.

“With some of your best players gone, sometimes it takes you a little longer to find your new identity,” Romar said. “I think as the season progresses and as our league progresses some of our teams will get better because by then they will be used to playing without those guys who carried them so much last year.”

That may be happening. The final couple of weeks of preconference play have given the Pac-10 a handful of encouraging wins.

Washington beat No. 19 Texas A&M. WSU beat Louisiana State in overtime. Arizona beat North Carolina State. USC beat No. 9 Tennessee and then won the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu with wins over Saint Mary’s and UNLV.

Romar said he’s happy to see it – even though that improvement could mean a tougher league race.

“If all the teams in the league were undefeated it would be great,” he said. “It would be great for our league, and you step up to the challenge. It’s the same question that gets asked when a great coach steps into the league: ‘Well, now are you worried?’ No, it’s great. ... Some other school gets the No. 1 recruit in the country: ‘Well, I wish we had him, but they’ve got him and it just always makes the league better.’ ”

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808