March 15, 2009
By Gregg Bell
AP SPORTS WRITER
SEATTLE - The NCAA tournament will include an Evergreen State invasion of Portland, Ore.
Washington is a No. 4 seed in the West region of the NCAA tournament and will play 13th-seeded and Southeastern Conference tournament champion Mississippi State in the first round on Thursday in Portland. The NCAA announced on Sunday the Huskies' first berth in the tournament in three years.
The game is scheduled to start 25 minutes following the conclusion of the 11:20 a.m. game between No. 5 Purdue and ninth-seeded Northern Iowa. It will be televised live by CBS as well as on the radio via the Washington ISP Sports Network, Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, Westwood One and GoHuskies.com.
West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga is also going to be in the Rose Garden, as the fourth seed in the South region. The Bulldogs will play Akron, also on Thursday.
When the Huskies (25-8) learned they were a fourth seed and didn't have to travel far to start the tournament, the players cheered at a public event inside a conference room at Husky Stadium.
The roars of the couple hundred fans standing around the players subsided when it was then announced Washington was playing Mississippi State.
"We were hoping we could start here, close to home. And we got that wish," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "We are going to play against a very good Mississippi State team."
When asked if he was surprised his Huskies, who won the Pac-10 regular-season championship for its first outright conference title since 1953, did not get a No. 3 seed, Romar said, "Not as surprised as I am that (Mississippi State is) a 13 seed."
Those Bulldogs (23-12) finished a surprise run through an SEC that was perceived to be weak this season by beating Tennessee in their conference tournament title game on Sunday.
They have a shot-blocking force in Jarvis Varnado. The 6-foot-9 junior led the nation last season with 157 blocks - then bettered that with 165 blocks this season. Varnado is also MSU's leading scorer at 13.1 points per game.
Mississippi State lost to Washington State, a team Washington beat twice this season, in late November at the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J. Varnado had just two points with four blocks in 25 minutes of that game.
If Washington can pass its initial test, the Huskies could run into another tournament champion from a top conference on Saturday. They would play the winner of Thursday's game between Purdue of the Big Ten and Northern Iowa. That game would be for a chance to advance to the regional semifinals in Glendale, Ariz., the following week.
No. 1 seed Connecticut is also on Washington's side of the West region bracket. Washington lost to then-top seeded UConn in overtime in the regional semifinals in 2006, the last time UW was in the tournament.
Romar is leading the Huskies to their fourth NCAA tournament since the former UW player returned to coach them in 2002. Washington had been to four NCAA tournaments in 17 years before Romar arrived.
The Pac-10 got six teams in the NCAA tournament, including somewhat surprising 12-seed Arizona.
"I think people missed the boat on our conference this year," Romar said. "The selection committee understood the Pac-10 is better than people thought."