<
>

Washington moves to head of the Pac

Washington is here to stay -- in the Pac-10 title race, in contention for an NCAA berth, and to possibly advance in the tournament.

Get to know these Huskies because there's no reason why they should simply disappear over the next month from the national conversation.

Washington got snubbed from the postseason two seasons ago after going 19-13 and flamed out in the CBI first round last season, finishing 16-17. The Huskies are determined not to experience similar disappointment this March.

"These guys have been on a mission since they were recruited to come here," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said by phone late Saturday night. "We were in the Sweet 16 when [the seniors were freshmen], but since then we haven't been at a high level and they were running out of time."

That group Romar is referring to consists of seniors Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon. Neither disappointed during Saturday's first-place showdown win over UCLA. Brockman bullied his way to 18 points and eight boards, including making 8 of 10 free throws, while Dentmon scored 16 points, making 10 of 10 free throws, to complement freshman backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas' 24 points in the Huskies' 86-75 win. Dentmon was sensational at the line all weekend, making 11 of 11 free throws for 22 points in a Thursday win over USC.

"Washington is back," Dentmon said by phone from Seattle. "It's a new beginning for the Huskies. We're playing great basketball."

Dentmon said the players had been bothered by the fact they missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. But there was no quit in this team, especially after a poor start this season.

"We found the pieces to this puzzle and we're much more comfortable in our roles," Dentmon said.

Those pieces are probably a reference to the three-guard quickness of Dentmon, Thomas and reserve Venoy Overton, which has caused problems for teams, while Brockman and forward Quincy Pondexter have provided an inside punch.

"They can all make plays," Romar said of the three guards. "None are limited. They can pass, score and they're feisty defensively. We give up some advantage with size but we gain it back with quickness."

Washington is faced with an upcoming four-game road trip to Arizona, Arizona State, Cal and Stanford. But a complete collapse during that stretch before the Huskies return to Seattle on Feb. 12 for Oregon State would be out of character for this team.

Saturday's win over UCLA was yet another example of how Washington (15-4, 6-1 for sole possession of first place in the Pac-10) has matured this season.

The Huskies, a trendy NCAA-bound pick in the preseason, stumbled out of the gate, losing at Portland. They were flat in a 73-54 loss against Kansas in Kansas City in late November, but then showed life the next night in a two-point loss to Florida. But there was still reason to doubt Washington, even during a seven-game winning streak to close the nonconference slate.

"It's been a work in progress but the next day after that loss to Kansas I knew we could get things right," Romar said.

The competition, save Oklahoma State, wasn't as high-caliber as the Huskies would see in the Pac-10. But Washington went to Wazzu, where the Huskies had lost seven in a row overall to the Cougs, and won by 20. Then they came home to beat Stanford 84-83 on a last-possession putback by Brockman, before suffering an 88-85 triple-overtime loss to Cal.

The easy thing would be to fall flat after that disappointment. Instead, the Huskies showed resiliency and swept through the Oregon schools, beat back USC by five (78-73) and outlasted UCLA by 11 for the Huskies' fifth straight win over the Bruins in Seattle.

Romar said the Huskies couldn't have won road games by 20-plus points in the Pac-10 in either of the past two seasons. So that's one main reason why he's not fretting the upcoming four-game slate.

"We'll see, but there isn't a team left we can't beat," Romar said. The schedule does get tougher with trips to the Arizona, L.A. and Bay Area schools. But the Huskies end with four in a row at home against the Arizona schools, a nonconference game against Seattle and Washington State.

"We're road-tested, and we actually play better on the road," Dentmon said. "We can find our own energy."

What else did we learn on Saturday?

Duke is No. 1. No breaking news here. Duke's ascension to the No. 1 spot is a given following Wake Forest's loss. The Blue Devils may have had the most convincing win to get to No. 1 by the total dismantling of Maryland, 85-44. Duke's time at No. 1 may only last a week though, with Wake Forest on tap in Winston-Salem on Wednesday. Duke has the toughest schedule of the three ACC title contenders. Duke has to play Wake and North Carolina twice. Wake and UNC played once, a Wake win in Winston-Salem.

Connecticut isn't far behind the Blue Devils. The Huskies reasserted themselves as a tri-Big East favorite with Pitt and Louisville by winning at Notre Dame 69-61, and snapping the nation's longest home winning streak at 45 games. Connecticut lost its Big East opener to Georgetown and since then has won seven straight in the league. This was by far the toughest and most significant win of the streak. UConn did win at West Virginia, but the Mountaineers aren't nearly as dominant at home as the Irish. Jeff Adrien's 19 boards is yet another reminder of his overall value to the Huskies.

Separation in the ACC. Maryland has been absolutely crushed by two of its biggest rivals in Georgetown and Duke. That doesn't mean the Terps have no shot at the Dance, but it's looking more and more remote. You can make a case, and I will, that there are now eight teams in the ACC that have a shot at a bid, barring a tournament title. Those eight are: Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State. This will get whittled down more over the next month.

Memphis is back on the national scene. The Tigers desperately needed to pull off a quality nonconference win, and to do it on national television certainly helps their cause. The Tigers outlasted Tennessee in Knoxville, winning 54-52. The Tigers have won 10 straight games. The three losses the Tigers have suffered, all within a few possessions, were to quality, ranked NCAA teams (Xavier in Puerto Rico, Georgetown in D.C. and Syracuse at home). Prior to the Tennessee win, the Tigers hadn't beaten a team that you can say with 100 percent certainty would be in the NCAA tournament. You can say that now. Memphis has one more crack at a big-time nonconference team when it goes to Gonzaga on Feb. 7.

Goodbye Arkansas? The Hogs are 0-4 in league play, the only winless team in the SEC West. Arkansas is young. Everyone knew that going into the season. But the Hogs raised expectations when they beat Oklahoma and Texas at home, for two wins that possibly no team in the Big 12 will get this season. Arkansas still has to play Kentucky, LSU twice and Mississippi State on the road. Losing two home SEC games and getting blown out in both is a reality check that the Hogs aren't an NCAA team.

Kentucky to sweep the SEC honors? Well, it's early, but the Wildcats look like they have the SEC Player of the Year in Jodie Meeks, a potential Coach of the Year in Billy Gillispie and quite possibly the best team as the only undefeated (5-0) squad in the league. Kentucky hasn't played Florida yet -- home or road -- but already has wins at Tennessee, at Georgia and at Alabama.

Xavier is back as a national player. The last time the Musketeers stepped outside the Atlantic 10 in a significant game they got embarrassed by Duke in New Jersey and then lost at home to Butler. Since then, the Musketeers have won eight straight, but none were as important as their victory at LSU on Saturday. That road win proved the Musketeers can defend away from home, are mature enough to handle a hostile environment and are tournament-tested. Meanwhile, LSU missed out on a signature nonconference win yet again after losing to Texas A&M in Houston and to Utah on the road.

The Big Ten may be a three-team race. The difference is that the third team is Illinois (5-2), not Wisconsin. Michigan State (5-1) and Purdue (4-2) should stay at the top in the league race, but Illinois' home win over Wisconsin was yet another reason why the Illini, not the Badgers (who have lost four straight games), are the choice to hang in the race.

Blake Griffin may run away with the player of the year honor. Yes, it's true. Oklahoma's mammoth sophomore is putting up numbers that are hard to debate. Griffin poured in 20 points and 17 boards in a win over Baylor. Meanwhile, OU (5-0) is clearly going to be the leader in the chase for the Big 12 title with Kansas (4-0) still waiting to play either OU or Texas, and the Longhorns (3-1) trying to catch the Sooners. Texas has already lost to the Sooners in Norman, and the rematch will have to wait until Feb. 21.

Butler continues to dominate the Horizon. The Bulldogs just have to watch out for any complacency. Butler is cruising at 9-0 in the league, 18-1 overall. The Bulldogs blitzed third-place Wisconsin-Milwaukee 78-48 on Saturday. The Bulldogs haven't allowed more than 60 points since Valparaiso scored 62 on Jan. 3, and haven't lost since Dec. 13 at Ohio State.

Remember Siena? The Saints were a trendy pick to be a Top 25 team in the preseason. Siena coach Fran McCaffery believed he had one of the best 25 teams in the country. But then the Saints whiffed in three games at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., and it was no surprise that Siena couldn't beat Kansas or Pitt on the road. But the most important thing has always been getting the No. 1 seed in the MAAC. Siena is 9-0 after dispatching second-place Niagara in Albany, 82-65.

Colonial showdown. VCU clipped a George Mason team minus John Vaughan 76-71 to move to 8-1 in the conference. Northeastern won 58-42 at Old Dominion to move to 8-1 as well. The Huskies go to VCU for a showdown Tuesday night. In an unbalanced scheduling advantage, VCU doesn't have to visit George Mason (7-2) or Northeastern.

One bid for the Valley? The competitiveness in the Missouri Valley is as good as it's been the past few years. That's great for balance from top to bottom. But what does it do for multiple bids? Northern Iowa (7-1) plays at Missouri State on Sunday, but the Panthers (13-6) may not have a win against an NCAA tournament team on their nonconference résumé. Creighton, the projected favorite, lost again Saturday, this time to Drake, to fall to 5-4. Illinois State, one of the last unbeaten teams in the country, is 17-3 overall, 6-3 in the league and goes to UNI on Wednesday.

Buffalo's near-miss against UConn was telling. The Bulls nearly clipped the Huskies way back in early December in Buffalo before losing 68-64. It wasn't a fluke. The Bulls then went on to win the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. Since then, the Bulls have won four of five games to start out as the hottest team in the MAC. Buffalo won at Miami of Ohio and Akron.

The streak begins again. NJIT snapped its 51-game losing streak with a win over Bryant University at home last week. But NJIT couldn't start a winning streak, losing to Longwood 63-51. To Bryant's credit, the Bulldogs didn't get down after their loss. Bryant beat Long Island University 57-55 on Saturday for its fourth Division I win in its first year as a provisional member.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.