The Huskies' opponents this weekend, Oregon and Oregon State, are not in the upper division of the Pac-10, nor are they ranked in the Top 25 or even in the top 100 teams according to the RPI. And that could be a problem for No. 20 Washington. The Huskies (18-5, 7-5) have played their best games against the best opponents, beating Gonzaga and UCLA, which are currently ranked at No. 5 and No. 14 respectively. But starting with the non-conference slate, the Dawgs have shown a tendency to play to the level of the opposition.
Following their first win at Pauley Pavilion in 19 years, the Huskies had a dismal outing versus Oregon State last month, shooting 33 percent and needing every one of the Beavers' 28 turnovers to claim a 69-65 win. Coming off Pac-10 losses, the Huskies seem to lose their hunger in the second halves of the Washington State games and suffered two black eyes. So, despite the first four-game season sweep of USC and UCLA since 1987, you can forgive Husky fans for be a little nervous as Washington heads to Eugene for Thursday's early evening game (5:30 pm, FSN). As the team sets its sights on the Ducks, there are reasons to be as skittish as a member of Dick Cheney's hunting party.
"The verdict is still out on us," said Brandon Roy, who was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week for his 45 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists in the victories over the Trojans and Bruins. "We lost three road games in a row and now we're going on the road for two more. So we have to pull off some big wins. We're not happy about anything yet. We know that if we can win these two games we'll position ourselves really well, not only in the conference but our chances for NCAA Tournament. So our backs are still against the wall."
In the three trips to McArthur Court under coach Lorenzo Romar, last year's overtime win—thanks to some heroics by Will Conroy—was the only victorious escape. It's been an unusual season for Oregon (11-14, 5-8), but even with four home losses in seven Pac-10 games, McArthur remains an uncomfortably claustrophobic experience for visiting teams.
"Oregon is tough place to play," Roy said with added emphasis when asked about the Duck fans and the Gary Coleman taunts directed at Nate Robinson. "It's hot, it's a little box and seems like everybody is just on top of you. Oregon (usually) plays with a lot of energy, not only because it's a Pac-10 game, but because we're a Northwest rival. It's an exciting game."
The Ducks might be the most difficult team in the conference to predict. They're talented and athletic, but have struggled to find consistency as coach Ernie Kent has started 11 players this season. Junior point guard Aaron Brooks is the only member of the young squad to have started all 25 games. His return to Seattle for the Jan. 21 match-up was a microcosm of Oregon's struggles. Brooks had eight assists and six rebounds, but hit only 2 of 12 shots with five turnovers. The 78-59 loss was far from the Ducks' best effort.
Oregon hasn't gone down without a fight recently. Prior to their win at Arizona State last Saturday, the Ducks lost to three conference contenders by a total of five points.
They fell to Stanford 57-56 and to Cal and Arizona by a basket.
"I think Oregon is a better team than the record may indicate. A missed shot here or there, a turnover here or there at the end of the game," Romar started. "(They had) 9.6 seconds with the ball at Arizona, they have a chance to tie and win it. Against Stanford at (home), they pretty much had the game in their hands, but they didn't pull it out. Why is that? I don't know the answer to that, but I know they have been closer than what some people give them credit for."
The Ducks had five scorers in double figures in the 98-87 defeat of the Sun Devils, with 22 points from Malik Hairston and 20 from Chamberlain Oguchi, a swingman who's emerged with 20 or more points in three of the past four games. Oguchi, a sophomore shooter from George W. Bush High School in Houston, was a big part of the Ducks' 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range at ASU and in their comeback from 21 points down at Arizona. In that game, Oregon hit 5-of-9 attempts from behind the arc in the second half rally, with Oguchi going 6-of-8 for the game. Three-point shooting has been a make-or-break stat for the Ducks. While they make nearly as many treys as the Huskies (6.23 per Pac-10 game to the UW's 6.5), Oregon is next-to-last in the conference in 3-point percentage (.321) and 3-point FG defense (.391).
The Ducks will likely be without guard Bryce Taylor, their third leading scorer (9.3 ppg) who hyperextended his right knee in practice on Feb. 6. The injury has kept the revolving door of a starting lineup spinning on its axis. Along with Brooks and Hairston, Jordan Kent has been one of the few constants recently as his father contemplates his rotation against the Huskies.
"They're one team that's caused us a lot of problems," Ernie Kent told the Eugene Register-Guard this week. "Part of it is their aggressive style of play, but there are some tough match-ups for us."
Oregon State (10-14, 3-10) handed the Huskies their worst loss of last season, 90-73, the second blowout in three years at Corvallis. But the Beavers have fallen on hard times of late, having lost seven of their last eight games without senior point guard Lamar Hurd, who suffered a strained groin prior to the previous clash with the Huskies. Oregon State will receive some relief in the form of Jason Fontenet, who was suspended for the Arizona trip, where the Beavers lost to ASU by 17 and to Arizona by 22. But Fontenet and Wesley Washington have struggled in Hurd's shoes, with more turnovers than assists. OSU had 25 turnovers against the quick Wildcats.
Forward Sasa Cuic has been one of the few bright spots for the slumping Beavers. Cuic has averaged 19.8 points while leading OSU in scoring four of the last five games. The 6-foot-10 Croatian sophomore has displayed the touch of so many European big men, drilling 24 of his last 44 attempts from 3-point range (.545). Junior center Kyle Jeffers, who had five blocks versus the Huskies last month, posted a career-high 14 points at Arizona.
Along with Nick DeWitz, who has 50 blocks on the season, the OSU frontline pressured Jamaal Williams and Jon Brockman into a combined 6-for-24 shooting night. Bobby Jones, who led the UW with 16 points in that contest, was the only starter to shoot more than 35 percent (5-13). The Jan. 19 brick-fest was the only Pac-10 game in which Roy (8 points) didn't score in double figures. With 20 points last Saturday versus the Bruins, Roy narrowly trails Cal's Leon Powe in Pac-10 scoring over the entire season (19.2 to 19.4) and his average of 22.6 points in conference games is more than three points better than the numbers of Powe and USC's Greg Pruitt.
"Oregon State, since I've been in college they've been blowing us out there," said Roy. "We came back and won one game (in overtime), but besides that they've blown our doors off. So this is not an easy road trip. We feel that we have a different team, a bigger team. We feel like if we keep priding ourselves in getting stops defensively, that we'll do fine at both teams."
Two of the three recent road losses came down to the final seconds, with some poor decisions and fouls costing the Huskies. With a late turnover and two UW fouls, UCLA was able to cut the lead to one, yet the Dawgs were able to hold on. But the fates on the road are often less forgiving.
"We did a great job of hitting our free throws down the stretch and taking care of the ball and then, in the last minute, we made some mistake," Roy commented on the Bruin battle. "Coach just told us, 'Great job of staying together and pulling out a tough win, but there is still a lot of room for us to improve and grow.'"
With three weeks remaining in the conference race and only two games separating the top five teams (in the loss column), the Huskies seem to have a sense of what is possible. A sweep through the Willamette Valley, their first since 1998, would set up showdowns with three of the four schools ahead of them in the standings—Stanford and Cal at home and Arizona in the road finale. It all comes down to three of Romar's most-repeated axioms: mental toughness, focus and 40 minutes.
"With the two wins this last week I think we're fairly confident, but instead of just blindly optimistic, (we're) cautiously optimistic," Romar assessed. "I think if we can go on the road and play well, I like where we are mentally. So in these two games, I like where we are going down the stretch. We just got to be able to handle it."