This week, the Washington Huskies Men's Basketball team embarks on a trip to the Arizona schools with a chance of cementing their spot atop the Pac-10 standings. Enjoying their first national ranking since 2007, the No. 23 ranked Huskies (15-4, 6-1 Pac-10) will first visit Tucson to face the Arizona Wildcats (12-8, 2-5 Pac-10). Arizona has won three of the last four meetings, with both teams taking the home contest last season.
Playing with the Pac-10 lead and a national ranking next to their name is new territory for this Husky team, but head coach Lorenzo Romar knows it means very little.
"As I said before, it's a credit and a compliment to our program, but it doesn't ensure that you're going to be in the NCAA Tournament," Romar explained. "Two years ago, we were ranked number eight in the country, we didn't make anything. It's a credit to our program, but at the same time, we've got a lot of games to play."
The next game they play is a big one. Washington has lost the last two times at the McKale Center, and a win Thursday would set up a giant size showdown in Tempe, with the Pac-10 lead most likely on the line. But to accomplish that, Washington will have to handle Arizona's big three; Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise.
"Jordan Hill is one of the best big-men in America," Romar explained. "He could be a lottery pick next year. Chase Budinger could have gone to the NBA Draft last year and would have been a first round pick. And Nic Wise is a point guard with a terrific winner's mentality. He hurt us last year in Arizona. Those three are really good basketball players, and they've got some other players that aren't scoring as much as them, but are very good in their roles."
Hill has put together a remarkable season, averaging 18.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. Washington's senior leader, Jon Brockman, has won the rebounding title the past two seasons, but now sees Hill sitting atop in that category. Brockman knows he'll have his hands full, but it's not stats that worries him.
"He's one of the many really good bigs in this league," said Brockman. "He can block a lot of shots, he's so long and athletic. On the defense end, he can cause a lot of havoc. On the offensive end, 15 and 17 feet in, he can score. He's a dangerous player wherever he's at."
"Our team is the number one rebounding team in the nation right now," Brockman continued. "I'm way more excited about that than leading the league personally in rebounds. As long as our team is doing a great job rebounding [I'm happy], rebounding is a team effort. I didn't even know he was leading the league. He's a fun player to play against, and I'm looking forward to that more than anything."
It has been an up and down season for the Wildcats, who have two extremely impressive wins against Gonzaga and Kansas. However, mental mistakes have also cost them some close games that could have changed the outlook of their season.
"They've had several games that could have gone either way," said Romar. "You break out the film of them against Gonzaga and Kansas, and it's something they couldn't have faked. They couldn't have faked like they were that good. At any time, they can play like that, and they're capable of beating anyone when they play like that."
One reason they have broken down late in games, is their lack of depth. Budinger plays 36.9 minutes per game, Wise 35.8 minutes per game, and Hill 34.6 minutes per game. That is a lot to ask of any player, even ones with their ability.
"There's several teams in our league that don't have a deep rotation," Romar said. "Arizona was like that last year, where they didn't have a deep bench - they were still a team that just didn't role over for us. Obviously, if some of their players are in foul trouble, that helps the opponent. But the same would go for us. I'd say that'd be the case for most teams, but they don't have as deep of a bench [as us]."
Brockman isn't overlooking the Wildcats and understand just how dangerous a team with three future NBA players can be.
"They're a dangerous team, have a lot of weapons," he said. "They have a lot of good athletes. They're a team that can definitely put some points on the board. [They are some] pretty dangerous guys we're facing, and we've got to really focus on our game plan defensively when we're playing them."
Washington will also have to be focused while playing on the road. The past two years, road games have been their nemesis, but Washington may have played their best game of this season at Washington State.
"You're going to face a lot more adversity when you're on the road, so you have to be a little bit tougher mentally," explained Brockman. "You really just have to put every single possession that happened in the back of your mind and focus on the possession at hand. I think that's the thing you've got to get ready for more than anything. Nothing's really going to go in your favor when you're on the road. You're kind of battling everyone else. It's the team against everyone else that's there."
This season's version of the Washington Huskies have gotten that mental toughness back. But, this will be a true test to see if they can remain on top of the Pac-10.
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