The University of Washington men'ês basketball team took a two-week breather near the start of league play. Consecutive-loss point margins against Oregon, Arizona State and Arizona totaled 45, an interesting number that matched the fact that the one-time 10th-ranked Huskies, by Jan. 14, had fallen to about 45th place among national major-college basketball teams and their chances for another berth to the NCAA tournament seemed about 45 percent at best.
Then they deigned to show interest in playing league games. On Thursday the Dawgs dispatched Stanford 94-61. Two days later they actually looked even more imposing in putting away the nominal conference-leader, Cal. Against the Golden Bears, the Huskies at times seemed to have about nine guys on the court at once, dominating the backboards, canning free-throws (all 13 the first half), hitting from the perimeter, picking up loose balls, stealing passes and generally looking like they belong back in the national top-25. Yes, the final was "just" 84-69 but the Dawgs had led by 20 with 1:32 left to play.
The big difference between the 1-3 league start and the pair of wins since then is a visible team tenacity unseen since Jon Brockman was setting the pace of play last season. Just as visible: Every UW players displayed joy in being rewarded for the hard work it takes to be competitive in today'ês Pac-10. It'ês shaping up as the most balanced basketball conference since league play commenced three decades ago.
Today the Dawgs (11-5, 3-3) got off to the slow start that has been typical of the team the past few years. After six minutes they took a 9-8 lead and never glanced backward against a Cal club that looked ... well, Cal looked precisely as inept as the Huskies had been during the three-game slump (four if you include a New Years Eve 76-70 home victory that wasn'êt exactly a champagne-popper against an Oregon State team that later would lose at home by 51 to Seattle University).
Husky mentor Lorenzo Romar , after the Stanford laugher, said: "I was just very hopeful that we could come out tonight and play with energy. That is what we talked about and our guys did a good job of doing that."
Ditto with the Cal game, as the announcers on Fox Sports Network observed. Team captain and marquee star Quincy Pondexter led scorers with 25 points. He and teammate Isaiah Thomas (20 points) each sat out a quarter of the game but together accounted for more than half the Dawgs scoring output.
It's probable, though, that not many inside the organization or among the fan base believe this team has as yet arrived. The Huskies have lost all four road games by a total of 49 points. If they display any of their road-weary lethargy in Los Angeles next week, they'êll be unlikely to beat UCLA Jan. 21 or USC two nights later.
On the other hand, the PAC-10 regular-season championship might go to a team with as many as seven conference losses. Put another way: The league may be deemed so mediocre this season that the only sure bet as a March Madness entry will be the team that wins the post-season league tournament.
That's more bad news for Dawg fans because the tournament, of course, will be in Los Angeles: perfect spot for another Husky breather.