Jan. 24, 2009
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE -- Justin Dentmon and the Washington Huskies are ready.
The senior shooting guard is looking forward to Saturday's showdown for the Pac-10 lead when the resurgent Huskies (14-4, 5-1 Pac-10) face the conference's top team, No. 13 UCLA (15-3, 5-1).
"I'm treating it like a championship game, and we've got to come out and perform," Dentmon said Friday between the teams' practices at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. "They've got what we really want. They are a dynasty."
That dynasty -- three consecutive appearances in the Final Four, three consecutive conference titles for the first time since John Wooden was the Bruins' coach -- is facing an up-and-coming team.
Washington has missed the past two NCAA tournaments, but has its most complete team since All-American Brandon Roy left for the NBA in 2006.
The Huskies are 5-1 in the Pac-10 for the fifth time in the past 25 years. They have won 12 of 13 games -- albeit against unranked teams -- with the only loss in triple overtime to California.
A sweep last weekend at Oregon and Oregon State left the Huskies 3-0 on the road in the conference for the third time in school history and first time since 1998, a possible sign this team has more to it than just Jon Brockman.
With packed-in defenses smothering Brockman inside and the senior still playing through a sprained ankle, Dentmon and freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas are carrying the Huskies.
When Southern California focused so intently on Brockman on Thursday night that he had no field goals for the first time since his freshman season, Dentmon and Thomas hurt the Trojans with 22 and 17 points, respectively.
Dentmon has scored at least 20 points in three of his past four games -- the most prolific scoring stretch of his career.
"We've talked about it, like if we get these two wins people will begin taking notice of us," Dentmon said of Washington's return to national prominence. "Not that we are back, that we are a new team on the scene. That we have our own, new identity."
These Huskies are deeper and more athletic than in the past two seasons.
Defensive stopper Justin Holiday -- brother of UCLA freshman Jrue Holiday, who will play against each other Saturday with their parents in from Los Angeles to watch -- and 6-foot-9 shot-changer Matthew Bryan-Amaning make Washington's bench deep and athletic.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said the team's mental toughness and much-improved defense is steadying it through choppy stretches.
With Brockman leading the way, Washington is tops in the nation in rebound margin (plus-11).
UCLA coach Ben Howland calls Brockman, who had 13 rebounds on his "off" night Thursday, "an absolute animal."
Washington has beaten UCLA four consecutive times inside raucous Hec Ed in Seattle, including last year's upset of the then-fifth-ranked Bruins. And the Bruins seem vulnerable at the moment, having lost at home in overtime to No. 17 Arizona State last weekend and hanging on at Washington State on Thursday night when the Cougars missed a potentially winning shot at the end.
Howland said Friday he hoped UCLA would "have a chance to win."
"They have a new player in Isaiah Thomas who really is a game changer," Howland said by telephone from his team's hotel in suburban Seattle. "Dentmon's playing like a really, really seasoned veteran that he is. Brockman is Brockman; He is an NBA player.
"We have to keep them off the glass to give us a chance to win."
Thomas leads Pac-10 freshman in scoring, assists and assist-to-turnover ratio.
The former high school star from Tacoma, Wash., who spent two years at a prep school in Connecticut to mature and improve his grades, is spending his off-court time signing autographs for fans.
They are wearing T-shirts with his likeness and carrying signs that read "You can't stop I.T.!"
Teams are trying and failing. They are using box-and-one, hybrid zone defenses and putting their best defenders on Thomas. Yet he leads Washington in scoring at 15.9 points per game, sixth-best in the conference.
"It's not weird. I'm used to it," Thomas said of the attention, on and off the court. "It was kind of like that in high school for me. It was crazy."
Saturday will be, too, if Washington beats UCLA again.
"Exactly, this is why I came here," Thomas said. "It's a big game."