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Originally published November 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2007 at 8:42 AM

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Bud Withers

Basketball Preview | Huskies, Cougars, Zags all riding high

Somehow, against the kind of odds usually reserved in mid-March for Belmont winning the NCAA tournament, our state is awash in college-basketball proficiency...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

I don't know what we did to deserve this, but don't ask questions. When the IRS surprises you with a refund check, you don't quibble, you search for a deposit slip.

Somehow, against the kind of odds usually reserved in mid-March for Belmont winning the NCAA tournament, our state is awash in college-basketball proficiency.

All over the place — Seattle, Spokane, Pullman — there are possibilities, big ones. It hasn't been this promising for the state's prominent basketball schools since ... since ... since never.

Back on the night Andy Russo's Washington team lost by 55 to Arizona, I never saw it coming. Nor on the day we sat at Lynn Nance's weekly news briefing, three of us newspaper hacks, and during the inevitable lull in the conversation one asked Nance, "When you were with the FBI, did you ever have to shoot anybody?"

Nor was there much hint of hope when Paul Graham's Washington State program went 9-63 in four seasons of Pac-10 games. Try to name a president who turned in a quadrennium like that.

Then it happened. Gonzaga hit the big time and made itself at home. Washington hired Lorenzo Romar, and the Huskies have had first-round NBA draft choices the past three years. Washington State hired Dick Bennett, who begot Tony Bennett, who begot a miracle last season.

When Romar was a senior guard at Washington in 1980, the Huskies won 18 games and the Cougars went to the NCAA tournament with 22. But back then, as he notes, "the whole Gonzaga thing, that's something you didn't envision happening. And the way it is now, Washington State never had this type of preseason national attention. This is just kind of standard for Gonzaga. I think it's good for the state."

A challenge: Name a state with a better percentage of its Division I teams (Eastern Washington is the fourth) expected to play high-level hoops this season.

Washington State enters the 2007-08 season as the most highly regarded of the three, hopeful of repeating the exquisite chemistry that brought 26 wins the Cougars' way last season.

"I respect both of those programs," said Bennett. "But we're our own program. Our way is different from the Gonzaga way or the Washington way. I want the guys to embrace that."

While the Cougars are ranked 10th, Gonzaga is No. 14, and that could be underrating the Zags, who have a string of nine consecutive NCAA appearances.

Assessing the Gonzaga roster recently, forward David Pendergraft said, "It's pretty ridiculous."

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Meanwhile, Washington should sneak up on people nationally, but only because they slept on the Huskies, who slipped to 19-13 last year. With more choices at guard, including a streamlined Justin Dentmon, Jon Brockman's thunderous contributions, and a reliance on an up-tempo style around him, the Huskies figure to be relevant again on Selection Sunday.

Three NCAA teams, then? It's happened only in 2004 in Washington, when Eastern joined Gonzaga and the Huskies with its only berth in history.

If it occurs again, it would bring commonality to three programs cut from different bolts.

It's well-documented that the Huskies and Zags don't go out of their way to break bread at the same table; their series is over, for now or forever, with Gonzaga having won eight of the last nine.

The Cougars are picking their spots, too. One of the reasons they opted out of the Great Alaska Shootout later this month was the presence of Gonzaga in the field, presenting a possibility WSU could have played the Zags twice.

Only occasionally do the three find themselves scouting the same talent. Right or wrong, the Huskies are seen as the hip, urban school by the Puget Sound inner city, which tends to view Spokane and Pullman as just west of Fargo.

"There's an information block; that's normal," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "Sometimes the kids over there think Spokane is so far away, so different and so behind the times. Yet if you bring a kid from Texas or Chicago or Philadelphia, or name any other city in the U.S., they think, 'What a great place, what a great environment.' "

So the Zags and Cougars have largely gone elsewhere, and profitably. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver of WSU attended high school about 4,500 miles apart, and intersected in Pullman to become All-Pac-10 collegians.

The case of Inglemoor senior Mark McLaughlin is a window into the college dynamic in the state. McLaughlin committed to the Cougars early in July.

Within the next couple of weeks, he heard from AAU teammates that he could do better than the Cougars, so he bailed on the commitment. Rather than wait him out, WSU said sayonara — and recently nailed down a commitment from Californian Klay Thompson, whom many people believe to be an upgrade over McLaughlin.

"I'll never apologize for our program, what we're about or who we are," says Bennett.

So, a toast to a basketball renaissance in Washington. In fact, make it a triple.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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