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Originally published Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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Huskies need to improve as Pac-12 play begins, just like last year

A year ago, the Huskies went on a hot streak, winning 13 of 16 games and netting their second regular-season conference title in the past four years. Can they repeat?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ WSU, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU

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Here we go again.

Washington slogged through a nonconference men's basketball season that produced more cause for concern than excitement.

The Huskies lost three games at home to Nevada, Colorado State and Albany (yes, Albany).

They've beaten just two decent teams — Seton Hall and Saint Louis — while failing to put up much of a fight against elite competition, including double-digit defeats to No. 8 Ohio State and Connecticut on the road.

The Pac-12 season began Wednesday, and the buzz in the conference surrounds preseason favorite No. 3 Arizona, along with UCLA, Colorado and Oregon.

Meanwhile, it appears as if defending champion Washington (8-5) will be lucky to finish fifth, which is where the Huskies were picked in the preseason media poll.

Any of this sound familiar?

Maybe you heard it before last year when Washington began conference play with an uninspiring 6-5 record. The Huskies stumbled to an 8-6 mark before winning 13 of their next 16 games and winning their second regular-season title in the past four years.

Lorenzo Romar rarely talks about repeating as Pac-12 champions or defending the conference title Washington surprisingly won last season. The UW coach is more focused on this season's team creating its own identity and maximizing its potential.

But for a second straight season, the Huskies begin conference play needing a strong finish if they're going to participate in the NCAA tournament.

"Because of the way we played early in the season and losing some of the games we did, we have very little margin for error," Romar said. "Unfortunately, we've been down this road before, so we have some experience with that.

"It's never been about defending a title or trying to hold on to something. You go out and try to reach your potential. That's really all you can do. Be as good as you can be, and everything else will take care of itself."

Last season, Washington was lucky to win the outright conference title with a 14-4 record thanks to the middling efforts of everyone else in the league. The Pac-12 was widely panned by national media and fans due to its poor efforts in nonconference games and a failure to produce a top-25 ranked team.

The conference was 0-11 against ranked teams last season. Only two teams (Colorado and California) received NCAA tournament berths while four (UW, Oregon, Arizona and Stanford) were relegated to the National Invitational Tournament.

This season, the Pac-12 has posted a 5-15 record against ranked nonconference teams.

Arizona, UCLA and Colorado were each ranked in the top 25, but the Bruins and Buffaloes fell out of the polls weeks ago, leaving the 12-0 Wildcats — one of four unbeaten teams in the nation — to carry the conference flag.

"This year, hopefully, the preseason predictions are right," Arizona coach Sean Miller said on a teleconference call. "So far I think our team is in a good place. ... Whether we win the Pac-12 or not is up for debate."

Perhaps the game of the year in the conference will take place Thursday when Colorado (10-2) visits Arizona, which is a rematch of last year's thrilling Pac-12 tournament final. CU won 53-51.

Other intriguing opening-week story lines include: UCLA (10-3) hosting California (8-4) and Stanford (9-4), while Arizona State (11-2) receives an early test when it faces the Buffaloes on Sunday.

Oregon (11-2) takes on Oregon State (10-3) while Washington faces Washington State (9-4) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

"I've seen a team that's starting to realize their identity," Cougars coach Ken Bone said Wednesday about the Huskies. "I thought the Connecticut game showed that. They got out and denied the passing lanes more. They pressured the ball a little bit more. They definitely executed their high-post offense, and I think it just helps when you've got healthy bodies.

"They now have Andrew Andrews back in the lineup and he's a good player, and Kemp (Shawn Kemp Jr.), he's back in there. They're a good eight, nine deep, and I think it's the first time all year maybe (Romar's) had all the guys back there. So they're healthy at the right time."

Still, it remains to be seen if Washington can conjure another midseason surge.

"The only good thing about being in this place is we've done it before," said C.J. Wilcox, who leads the Huskies with an 18.5 scoring average. "For the most part, we have experienced guys who've been in this position before, and we know what we have to do.

"It's just a matter of zeroing in, focusing and getting it done."

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

On Twitter @percyallen

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