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Originally published February 1, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 2, 2012 at 7:47 PM

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UW's Aziz N'Diaye faces a tall order in UCLA's Joshua Smith

UW's Aziz N'Diaye will take on mountainous Josh Smith, former Kentwood High star.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Thursday

UCLA @ Washington, 6 p.m., ESPN

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When you stand 7 feet tall, there are literally few equals.

Such is the case with Aziz N'Diaye, Washington's junior center.

When he looks around the Pac-12, only a handful of players can look him in the eye.

One is Joshua Smith, UCLA's mountain of a man and former Kentwood High star who returns to the Puget Sound to face the Huskies.

"Everybody knows Josh," N'Diaye said, smiling. "That's a big challenge. He's a big body. ... Guarding him, he's always a challenge.

"I remember last year playing him and after that my back was hurting because just pushing him up and down it hurt."

In many ways, Thursday's 6 p.m. game at Edmundson Pavilion against UCLA (12-9, 5-4 Pac-12) is a measuring stick for Washington (14-7, 7-2) and N'Diaye.

He's averaged just 8.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in four games against the league's top centers (see chart) and has been anticipating a rematch with Smith ever since the UCLA center overpowered the Huskies last year in a 70-63 Washington win.

"Personally, I prefer going up against other big men, but there's not many of them — not like Josh — that you say this is going to really be a challenge," N'Diaye said before Tuesday's practice. "He's one that you know is going to challenge you and bring the best out of you because he makes you work."

The Huskies topped the Bruins in their last encounter, but they had no answer for the 6-10, 305-pound Smith, who bullied his way to 16 rebounds and 12 points in 31 minutes.

N'Diaye, who tallied six points and eight rebounds in the previous meeting with the Bruins, plans to counter Smith's size with speed.

"Aziz is fast to be 7-foot," UW senior forward Darnell Gant said. "I feel like he can run Josh out of the gym. Josh is not going to keep up with him. It's no secret. When Aziz plays against big men that are bigger than him or slow, he shines because he works so hard. His motor keeps going, which is amazing to be as big as he is."

Freshmen Tony Wroten Jr. and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are also familiar with Smith.

"Man, he's huge," said Wroten, who played with Smith on summer AAU teams. "I haven't seen him in about a year and I heard he got a lot bigger, so you know going in you got to protect yourself.

"He's strong and powerful. He's got a big body, and he's not taking any charges. He's coming to block shots or coming to foul, so you got to be prepared."

Seferian-Jenkins played Smith twice while at Gig Harbor High and lost both games.

The 6-6, 258-pound Huskies forward, who doubles as a tight end for the UW in the fall, said wrestling with Smith beneath the basket is similar to blocking a defensive end on the football field.

"I moved (Smith) a little in high school," Seferian-Jenkins said. "He definitely wore me out by the end of the game. I think he was heavier in high school. He was a big guy, and it was pretty tough. But I'm confident in myself. I've gotten a lot stronger, a lot quicker, and I'm in better shape."

Last season, Smith was considered one of the conference's top NBA prospects. However, conditioning issues slowed his progress and this season he's regressed in most statistical categories. His averages in points (10.9 to 9.7), rebounding (6.3-5.0) and minutes (21.7-17.6) are down.

Smith started eight games this season and sat out a Jan. 5 game against Arizona after suffering a concussion in practice. Two days later he tied a season high with 18 points against Arizona State as a reserve, but has not returned to the starting lineup.

Smith's struggles have paralleled UCLA's.

The Bruins, picked to win the Pac-12 regular-season title in a preseason media poll, were supposed to ground and pound opponents with a big front line that included Smith, 6-8 junior Reeves Nelson and 6-10 twins David and Travis Wear, transfers from North Carolina.

However, the season unraveled early. Howland dismissed Nelson, a first-team all-conference pick last season, on Dec. 9 for insubordination.

The Bruins were 2-5 at the time. Without Reeves, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the preseason, they are 10-4.

"I didn't think (UCLA) was going to be as great as the media was making them out to be," Gant said. "They're a decent team. They got a lot of hype early, but that wasn't a shock to me that they were struggling."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @percyallen

A hole in the middle
The conference that produced Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, two of the greatest centers in the college basketball history, is devoid of marquee players in the low post this season. Here's a look at the top big men in the Pac-12:
Name Team Yr. Ht. Wt. Pts. Rbs. Blks
James Blasczyk USC Jr. 7-1 260 2.7 2.8 0.2
Aziz N'Diaye Washington Jr. 7-0 260 8.4 8.1 1.3
Ruslan Pateev Arizona State Jr. 7-0 249 5.0 3.2 1.3
Jason Washburn Utah Jr. 7-0 230 10.4 6.1 0.7
Tony Woods Oregon Jr. 6-11 250 6.7 3.9 1.7
Angus Brandt Oregon State Jr. 6-10 237 9.1 3.4 0.6
Joshua Smith UCLA So. 6-10 305 9.7 5.0 0.8
Joe Burton Oregon State Jr. 6-7 280 9.3 6.1 0.3

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