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Originally published March 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 16, 2009 at 5:50 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Tough first-round game fitting for these hard-luck Huskies

Before the Madness began, an expectant Lorenzo Romar grabbed a microphone and informed the crowd at the Don James Center that his team was...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Before the Madness began, an expectant Lorenzo Romar grabbed a microphone and informed the crowd at the Don James Center that his team was already in anytime-anyplace-anywhere mode for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"If they send us to Alaska, we're going to be ready to go!" Romar declared as the spectators applauded.

Well, Sarah Palinville wasn't an option this year, but how does a short trip to Portland to play perhaps the most recognizable No. 13 seed ever sound?

If you groaned after seeing Mississippi State, the Southeastern Conference tournament champion, underneath Washington's name, you were justified in doing so. It's a shocking pairing at best, a shafting at worst, and peculiar all the way around, but it also fits the story line of the Huskies' revival season.

After a trying and circuitous three-year journey back to prominence, after being snubbed by the NIT two years ago and ousted early from something called the College Basketball Invitational last season, the Huskies shouldn't have expected to have their pick of the Cleveland States of college hoops in the opening round. For a hard-nosed team with a hard-luck back story, the Big Dance just had to include a Big Predicament.

Don't expect the Huskies to whine about it, however.

"I can't, and we can't, get caught up in all of that," senior forward Jon Brockman said. "We have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. We're doing something we've been dreaming of since we picked up a basketball. We're on the biggest stage, playing in the best games. There's not a more exciting time than March Madness."

Go ahead and tell the Huskies they got a raw bracket. Tell them it doesn't make sense for the SEC tournament winner to play the Pac-10 regular-season champ in the first round. Tell them Mississippi State has a center, Jarvis Varnado, who averages nearly five blocks per game, and how many No. 13 seeds have ever possessed a player with his go-go-Gadget arms?

Now, listen to Romar laugh and say, "You can't block them all, at least I don't think."

Listen to junior forward Quincy Pondexter express surprise that the Bulldogs were seeded so poorly before adding, "I bet some of those other 13 seeds are just as good, but they don't have the name of Mississippi State."

And listen to the rest of the Huskies welcome the challenge of playing such a high-profile opponent because it means they won't slack in preparation.

"All I can say is, enjoy it," senior guard Justin Dentmon said. "If you don't want to bring your 'A' game, then sit down."

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No politics. Just basketball. The Huskies might be the happiest No. 4 seed ever to see their name on the big screen. They've known for weeks that they would be in the Big Dance, but they refuse to take it for granted, not after what they've been through.

The memories of missing the tournament for two straight seasons remain with them. Brockman couldn't bear to watch the selection show on CBS those years. Romar watched, but the disappointment of not being in the field burned his insides. Pondexter sat alone in his room, quiet, eating pizza, wondering what might have been if only he'd done more for his team.

"I was angry at myself for not helping us get to the point where we should've been in the tournament," he said.

On Sunday, he experienced the joy of making the field for the first time. When he came to Washington three years ago, he thought the tournament was a given. The Huskies had been to three in a row. His recruiting class was hailed as possibly the greatest in school history.

Three years later, Spencer Hawes is in the NBA. Phil Nelson and Adrian Oliver have transferred. But there's Pondexter, the lone holdover from a banner class, improving, flourishing and now dancing at last.

"It means the world to us," Pondexter said of this NCAA berth. "We've been through so much as a team, and I think it's made us who we are today."

Who are they? They're not a spoiled Pac-10 champ crying over a lack of respect. They're a blooming program determined to make something of every opportunity they get.

"We're still a work in progress," Romar said. "We're still trying to build our program up to that top level."

Maybe one day, they'll look at NCAA tournament bids snootily and make more noise about being slighted. Not now, though. They're too busy trying to prove themselves again. After all, they do play an SEC champ in three days.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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