By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
The picture of the 21st Century athlete was Quincy Pondexter on Sunday afternoon.
Shortly after hearing that his University of Washington men’s basketball team would be headed to San Jose to face Marquette in Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament action, the senior forward was using one hand to press a cell phone to his ear while typing a message on his BlackBerry with the other.
And a few minutes later, when a commentator on the CBS broadcast expressed surprise about the Pac-10 securing two bids and the Huskies being ranked as high as they were — a No. 11 seed in the East Region — Pondexter’s face was the picture of the Huskies.
His smile morphed into a game face.
“It is what it is,” Pondexter said of the continued shots UW and its conference has taken this season. “It’s just analysts talking about where they think we should be. But no one knows. No one’s played the national championship, and no one’s played their first game yet.”
Despite being a 20-win team from a power conference with a seven-game winning streak and a Pac-10 tourney title, the Huskies were in a rare position by being saddled with a double-digit seed. By comparison, the other five power conferences each included tournament champions that received No. 1 or 2 seeds. The Pac-10 also had only two teams make this year’s Big Dance — Cal earned a No. 8 seed in the Southeast Region — to match the conference’s lowest total since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Washington wasn’t grousing after the tournament pairings came out Sunday, but the Huskies certainly looked focused.
“They can say what they want,” sophomore Isaiah Thomas said of a national perspective that has generally looked down upon both the Pac-10 and the Huskies this season. “We’re in there, so you can’t say too much about it now. They’ve been down on us all season, so it really doesn’t matter what they say.”
All the Huskies (24-9) wanted was a chance to prove themselves against some of the nation’s best teams, and they’ll get that this week. Sixth-seeded Marquette (22-11) comes from the mighty Big East Conference, which is widely considered the best league in college basketball.
UW has already faced one Big East team, having played Georgetown close for 20 minutes before the Hoyas blew them out in the second half of a December matchup.
The Golden Eagles lost to Georgetown in their last game — the Big East tournament semifinals — but had a rather impressive season to finish fourth in the conference.
Yet Marquette was 4-9 against teams that are in the tournament field, and all five of the Golden Eagles’ road wins came against Big East also-rans in games decided by three points or less.
Nonetheless, it’s a pretty tough opening-round opponent for a UW team that finished third in the Pac-10 and stormed through the conference tournament. But the Huskies, surprisingly, weren’t complaining about their first-round opponent or their double-digit seed Sunday.
“All that matters is that we got in,” junior Venoy Overton said. “We didn’t get our expectations too high. We just knew we were in there. It’s tough to play a tough team early, but this is the tournament; it doesn’t matter who you play.”
The trade-off of UW’s No. 11 seed is an opportunity to stay on the West Coast. The Huskies play in the Bay Area twice per year, so they know that part of the country well. And historically, UW has fared well on this side of the country this time of year, having won four of its past five NCAA games in western cities.
“It doesn’t hurt us, that’s for sure,” head coach Lorenzo Romar said of the Huskies’ geographical placement.
When the Huskies woke up on Sunday morning, their nerves were a lot more relaxed than they could have been had they lost to Cal in Saturuday’s Pac-10 title game. Having already locked up an automatic tournament bid, UW came into the day with more curiosity than anxiety.
When Romar addressed a few hundred fans at the Don James Center before the pairings were announced, he appropriately said: “About six weeks weeks ago, nobody thought we’d be playing against anybody” in the NCAA tournament and added: “We don’t care where we go, where we’re playing, where we’re seeded. We’re ready to play some basketball.”
When the pairings show began at 2 p.m. Sunday, Romar and the players looked somewhat relaxed but kept their eyes focused squarely on the television screens as almost 30 minutes of pairings passed.
When CBS was unveiling the top half of the East Region bracket and said the first syllable of fourth-seed Wisconsin’s opponent, UW sophomore guard Scott Suggs shot into the air.
Only after hearing that it was Wofford, not Washington, that would face the Badgers did Suggs sit back down.
A few minutes later, with four spots in the Spokane site still unknown, the Huskies found out that they would have to go out of state … but not have to leave the West Coast.
The players and fans broke into celebration. And just as quickly, the Huskies had on their game faces.
“Our guys have been extremely focused the past six or seven weeks, and they’ve now been rewarded with an NCAA berth,” Romar said. “We don’t want to give that away too soon.”
The Huskies have faced Marquette only twice in history, having lost to the school when it was known as the Warriors in 1966 and again in 1978. … UW has held a double-digit seed only twice, the last time being during a 1998 tournament that saw the Huskies advance to the Sweet 16. … Marquette’s leading scorer, Lazar Hayward, was a teammate of Pondexter’s on the USA’s World University Games team last summer.