Bank of America Arena is the place to be Thursday night as Washington (20-7, 10-3 Pac-10) squares off against Arizona State (21-5, 10-4 Pac-10), with a Pac-10 championship hanging in the balance. Washington enters the game with a half game conference lead over the red hot Sun Devils who have won five straight.
This game means a lot for both teams, as Washington tries to win their first outright conference title since 1953, while Arizona States looks for their first ever championship. UW shared the title in 1984-85, but ASU hasn't finished higher then second since joining the Pac-10 in 1979.
"I know in terms of league play, it's probably the biggest game I've had since I've been a Husky," explained senior forward Jon Brockman. "It makes it really exciting. I know what the environment is going to be like, and it's going to be wild and crazy.
Brockman also knows a win won't come easy against one of the top teams in the nation.
"They're coming in with a lot of energy, a lot of focus, and really I'm sure Arizona State is thinking they deserve to be in first place. I know they've been thinking that the entire year. From when the season started, they thought they were the best team in this league, and they're going to come in here and expect to take it."
For Arizona State to enter the season believing they're the best team in the league was no easy task unto itself. The three years prior to third-year Sun Devil head coach Herb Sendek arrival, Arizona State was 4-14, 7-11, and 5-13 in the Pac-10. In their first season under his tutelage, they still only managed a 2-16 conference mark, but Husky head coach Lorenzo Romar noticed an instant change.
"In coach Sendek's first year, when they won two conference games, they were in almost every game, very rarely did they get blown out," explained Romar. "When they were one and twelve, when you watched them warm up, they were focused, they were together, and on the floor they were organized, and they competed every game. After watching that you felt they were headed in the right direction. Then you throw James Harden into the mix, a potential NBA All-Star, and there wasn't any surprise that they would get where they are."
Harden is the Pac-10's leading scorer at 21.2 points per game. However, Washington held Harden to 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting in their 84-71 win at Tempe last month.
"Don't say that anymore, that we did a good job on him," Romar said with a laugh about Washington's defensive performance against Harden the first time around. "He is an outstanding basketball player and when he was in high school and we were recruiting him, you could see all of the outstanding things that would happen if you had him in your program. Just look what happened at Arizona State. He's the type of guy you can keep down for a little bit, but not for long."
Even if you slow Harden down on offense, he still has the ability to beat teams in other ways. He's second on his team in both assists (4.2) and rebounds (5.6).
"He's a competitor, he's going to come and try to perform every single game," explained Brockman. "I'm not sure which way he's going to do it, because he can get other people involved."
Another player Washington needs to be aware of is senior forward Jeff Pendergraph who's second on the Sun Devils in scoring (13.8) and first in rebounding (8.2).
"We have some battles, but he's a great guy," Brockman said of Pendegraph. "He really likes to run. He gets up and down the court for a big man better than anyone in the nation. He can get up and down, he's big, he's wide, athletic."
Arizona State began their current five game winning streak after dropping two games at home to Washington State and Washington. The Sun Devils will be using the loss last month as motivation to have a repeat performance of last season's 77-63 win over the Huskies in Seattle.
"I would be surprised if our guys hadn't already talked about that amongst themselves, or remembered last year," said Romar. "Because they came out in the second half of that game and went crazy on us."
But this is a new season and a new Husky team, and senior shooting guard Justin Dentmon is focused on the future and not the past.
"I remember we lost, that is all I can remember," he said. "It isn't about revenge, it's just a new beginning. This is just the next step in getting where we want to be."
Where Washington wants to be is atop the Pac-10 standings at season's end. To get there, they must show the same mental and physical toughness that has made them the only Pac-10 team not to lose back-to-back conference games this season. That toughness was on full display last Saturday in LA when they bounced back from a loss to UCLA and pulled out a gritty, if not ugly win over USC. These Huskies may have a reputation of a team looking to score first, but it's defense that has gotten them in position to be back into the NCAA Tournament.
"I attribute it to our defensive intensity," junior forward Quincy Pondexter said about Washington's ability to win both high scoring and low scoring games. "The better we play on defense, it opens up more transition buckets. We've been playing really good on defense so far, and we just have to continue that, because that's a key to our success."
Both teams need this win to fulfill their dream of becoming the 2008-09 Pac-10 champions. Both teams are talented, and both teams want it. The only question left is which team wants it more on Thursday night in Seattle, something Dentmon understands.
"It's going to be an aggressive game, and a battle between who can be smarter and have more heart."
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