University of Washington

Suddenly, big dreams for Huskies

The 2004-05 version of Washington Huskies basketball was the best I’d ever seen.

At least until last week, when the current team shockingly and almost inexplicably played itself into the conversation.

Washington’s gutty win over Marquette and utter domination of New Mexico unavoidably raise the question of just how good these guys are, and how good they might yet become.

In terms of pure résumé, they are just one win away from passing the ’05 Huskies – because while that team was sweet, it wasn’t elite.

And that’s the great divide the current Huskies are approaching. Waiting on Thursday is a Sweet 16 match against second-seeded West Virginia at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

With one more win, the current team moves to the Elite Eight – closer to an NCAA men’s basketball championship than any other UW team since the Final Four Huskies of 1953.

Other than that legendary team, the 2005 team has generally been considered the gold standard of UW basketball – a team so talented that it brought Brandon Roy off the bench. The starters were generally Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Tre Simmons, Bobby Jones and Mike Jensen.

Unlike the current version, those Huskies broke from the gate at a gallop and never let up. They proved themselves early by knocking off Utah, Oklahoma and Alabama on successive nights while winning the Great Alaska Shootout. After a loss at Gonzaga, they ran off a nine-game winning streak to stand at 13-1. They never lost back-to-back games. Then they warmed up for the NCAA tournament by winning the Pacific-10 Conference tournament.

Their reward was a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. They advanced easily with a first-round win over Montana and a second-round win over Pacific.

But their season ended in Albuquerque with a loss to Louisville. And there wasn’t anything fluky about the 93-79 whipping the Cardinals put on them.

The roster turned over a bit the next season – Robinson, Conroy and Simmons departed and the fresh faces of Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby appeared.

But Roy remained – as a senior and a starter this time.

That team also made the Sweet 16. And their overtime loss to Connecticut included so many frustrating ifs and buts that coach Lorenzo Romar admits he still thinks the tormenting thought: What if?

That was the year, after all, that George Mason beat UConn to make it to the Final Four. What if they would have played Washington instead?

This week, that if-George-Mason-could-do-it kind of hopefulness is raised again. And it isn’t pure fantasyland stuff.

One of the keys to NCAA tournament success is peaking at the right time.

These Huskies are doing that.

Matthew Bryan-Amaning has given UW a solid third option – one of the crucial divisions between good teams and championship teams.

Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton arm the Huskies with 40 percent of the Pac-10 all-defensive team every time out.

Quincy Pondexter is doing a better Brandon Roy impression than most anyone might have imagined.

In his second season, Isaiah Thomas had made modest improvements in points, rebounds and assists, and vast improvements in defense and leadership.

Elston Turner and Scott Suggs have been good enough often enough to force opposing defenses to respect UW’s outside game.

Abdul Gaddy, Darnell Gant and Tyreese Breshers make varying contributions on various nights, but they have never become distractions over lack of playing time or insufficiently featured roles.

They have become, in other words, a team. An aggressive, athletic, talented, confident-bordering-on-cocky team.

A lot like those guys from 2005.

“The way we’re playing we feel like we can beat anybody,” Thomas said after UW’s second-round mauling of third-seeded New Mexico. “It’s the NCAA tournament and anything can happen. We’re ready for this next game, we’re going to take it game by game, and try to get as far as possible.”

Two months ago, you would have had a hard time finding anyone expecting the Huskies to run off a streak of 14 wins in 16 games – nine of those wins away from home.

But now that they’ve done so, how hard is it to imagine them squeezing out another win to reach the Elite Eight? Or another couple to reach the Final Four? Or four more for the whole thing?

There are only 16 teams left around to dream such dreams.

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808