By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — For the good part of four decades, the Pac-10 pedestal was only wide enough for two men’s basketball programs. UCLA carried the conference’s proverbial flag for most of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and Lute Olson’s Arizona teams took that honor from the ’90s into the 21st Century. The two programs combined for 30 conference titles in a 37-year span.
That landscape has changed.
When it comes to Pac-10 powerhouses, the horizon is as open as ever. And the University of Washington is as likely a candidate for dynasty as any other.
Over the past two seasons, no Pac-10 team has won as many games as the Huskies’ total of 52. UW has a conference title, a conference tournament title and a trip to the Sweet 16 during that span.
Dating back to the beginning of the 2003-04 season, only UCLA (162) has more wins than the Huskies (161). No one has more than UW’s five top-three conference finishes in that seven-year span.
And heading into this season, the Huskies are the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-10 again.
The cream of the conference is the program led by Lorenzo Romar.
“When I was young, it was Arizona, UCLA,” junior guard Isaiah Thomas said. “I feel like we’re one of those teams now. Since I’ve been here, all we’ve done is win.”
What UW lacks on its resume is a deep run in the NCAA tournament, which is something that UCLA and Arizona came to expect year in and year out during their heydays. But in a conference that has fallen on hard times in recent years, the Huskies might be the best the Pac-10 has to offer.
“The last few years, it’s been growing with the talent that’s been coming here,” senior guard Venoy Overton said. “This is a team and a program to be reckoned with. We’re just starting to get our name out there as a powerhouse school.”
The recipe for UW’s success includes the surge of local talent, the program’s ability to keep top local talent like Brandon Roy and Jon Brockman close to home and a system that allows those players to thrive.
Sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy, who is one of four in-state products, said Romar is the key to the Huskies’ recent run of success.
“Our identity is because of him,” Gaddy said. “He’s a tough-minded coach. That’s why Washington is so good, because we’re a tough team.”
Romar joked earlier this week that the program is finally at a place where recruits no longer think a call from the Huskies means University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is on the phone.
“The conversation didn’t last very long when they found out who we really were,” Romar said. “… Now people say: ‘Brandon Roy. Nate Robinson. Jon Brockman. Spencer Hawes. I watched you play in the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16.’ They have much more of an appreciation for our program now.”
Whatever the Huskies have been doing has certainly opened the eyes of opponents. Last month, the Pac-10 media tabbed UW as an overwhelming favorite to win the conference. It’s believed to be the first time in history that a Pac-10 preseason favorite has come from any of the four schools in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s good that people think we’re talented, but at the same time we’ve got to stay humble,” Overton said. “We know we’re not going to go out there and have everything given to us. They’re going to be targeting us since we’re the No. 1 team (in the conference). So it’s kind of a good and a bad thing.”
The Huskies wouldn’t mind staying in the role of favorite, because that would mean UW has kept its spot atop the Pac-10 perch. The program would take even a short run like those that UCLA and Arizona had in previous decades.
“I think it’s the start of something big,” Overton said. “We try to keep good talent around from here. People from around here know about the history, and they want to stay home, so I think we’ll be fine for years to come.”
Recruiting, Romar said, is the key to staying on top.
“We have to continue to replace the players we have now,” he said, “with players like them.”
What Romar won’t say is that UW is the premier basketball program in the conference. The numbers will have to do the talking for him.
“I would say that we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “Whether or not we’re in that role, I don’t know — that’s not for me to say. But I would say we’re headed in the right direction.”