By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
SEATTLE — As bad as the University of Washington has been on the road this season — winless in six away games — the Huskies are still just a game out of first place in the Pacific-10 Conference men’s basketball standings.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that four teams sit atop Washington in the league race. The Huskies cannot afford to lose to any of them and have a realistic chance at a repeat Pac-10 championship, beginning with tonight’s game against Arizona State at Bank of America Arena.
The surprising Sun Devils are one of four teams with 6-4 Pac-10 records — Arizona, UCLA and California are the others — and one of ASU’s league wins came on Jan. 8 in a 68-51 thumping of Washington in Tempe, Ariz.
Despite losing two of the Pac-10’s best players a year ago to the NBA — guard James Harden, the league’s player of the year, and forward Jeff Pendergraph — Arizona State is tied for first in the conference and has the league’s best season record to date (16-7).
Meanwhile for the Huskies (15-7, 5-5 Pac-10), their assignment over the regular season’s final eight games is clear. They must win their remaining three home games, and then find a way to win all or most of their final five road games.
“We know the big picture,” acknowledged UW head coach Lorenzo Romar before the team’s Friday practice. “But we can’t dwell on the big picture right now. We can only say, ‘We’ve got to take care of today, and then we have to take care of the next day.’
“How do we like our chances?” he asked. “We’re as good as our next performance. And if our approach is where it needs to be every game, and if we reach our potential, then I like our chances to finish this (season) strong, on the road or at home. But we have to play to our potential, and that’s the task at hand daily for our group.”
Washington opened its two-game weekend set against the Arizona schools with an 81-75 victory over the UA Wildcats on Thursday. Despite a sluggish first half, the Huskies took charge in the second period to improve their winning streak to three and their home streak to five.
Romar has been pushing the team to reach its potential, “and in the games that we’ve played in the last couple of weeks, we’ve been pretty close,” he said.
Getting past Arizona State, though, will be no small task. Zone defenses have given the Huskies trouble this season, and the Sun Devils have one of the Pac-10’s best zones. ASU’s clog-the-middle defense, combined with woeful outside shooting, was a big reason the Sun Devils rolled past visiting Washington last month.
Against ASU’s zone, “you have to have aggressive patience,” Romar said. “You have to continue to get the ball in the soft spots. But that’s a very effective zone, as we and everyone else have seen.”
“We have to do a better job of moving the ball and not being so stagnant on offense,” said UW forward Quincy Pondexter, who had a terrific game against Arizona on Thursday with 30 points, 12 rebounds and three assists. “We have to make sure we get quality looks at the basket every time.”
In the last meeting between the teams, he added, “they did a good job of forcing us into bad, low percentage shots. But this time, with our own crowd, I think we’ll do a better job of taking care of the ball.”
As of Thursday afternoon, around 125 tickets still remained for tonight’s game. … Though he had an off night on Thursday and did not start the second half, guard Isaiah Thomas said he is completely recovered from a recent bout with the flu. … Romar had this to say about the fan, a season ticket holder, who was ejected after tossing a water bottle on the court during Thursday’s game: “Our fans are very classy. It just caught me off guard that something like that could happen, but sometimes emotions get the best of you. But I’m sure the person who did it is very remorseful.”1