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Originally published January 16, 2013 at 11:02 PM | Page modified January 17, 2013 at 12:03 PM

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Ugly the new pretty for Huskies

In another determined effort, the Huskies down Colorado 64-54.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Saturday

UW vs. Utah, 8 p.m., ESPNU

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There was a time, not too long ago, when you judged the Washington men's basketball team by its flash and flair. You looked at three-pointers made and the degree of difficulty on dunks. You watched games wondering how quickly the Huskies would reach 80 points.

It was fun. It wasn't always fulfilling, though.

Over the past few seasons, the cost of talent and offensive brilliance was often toughness and defensive tenacity. And so the Huskies were frustrating because, for all their ability and explosiveness, they were always a few defensive stops or rebounds or floor burns from becoming something special. They were almost too stylish for their own good.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, the Huskies don't have that mentality anymore. They're gritty over pretty. They prefer hustle stats over style points.

They didn't begin the season this way, and they struggled greatly because they don't have the talent to win without dirty work. But now that Pac-12 Conference play has begun, a season that once seemed destined for mediocrity suddenly simmers with possibility. The Huskies have transformed into a team willing to play with the kind of toughness and defense that will keep them competitive against any opponent they play for the rest of the season.

Actually, they're much better than competitive right now. They're undefeated in the Pac-12 and unconcerned about the notion that this isn't their year.

After three consecutive conference road wins, the Huskies returned to Alaska Airlines Arena on Wednesday night and improved to 4-0 in the Pac-12 with a 64-54 victory over Colorado. The game followed a familiar, ugly script.

Ugly is the new pretty for Washington.

"We take pride in our defense," point guard Abdul Gaddy said. "We don't like it when people score on us."

It isn't always fun to watch. It's fulfilling, though.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar is starting to get the best out of this team. It's too soon to make grand declarations about the Huskies turning into an NCAA tournament squad or a conference champion. But if they keep playing defense like this, they won't be a middle-of-the-pack afterthought. There's just enough talent and experience on this basketball team to make this season far more interesting than previously thought.

The Huskies have long, slender, finesse players, but they are now playing physical, challenging defense. They aren't blessed with great individual defenders, especially on the perimeter, but over the past few weeks, they have played some of the best team defense in college basketball.

On Wednesday night, I watched Washington live for the first time in a month, and the Huskies don't even look like the same team. They're challenging everything. They would've made it difficult for the Buffaloes to tie their shoes if Romar had requested it.

For the fourth straight conference game, the Huskies limited their opponent to a shooting percentage under 40 percent. Colorado made just 36 percent from the field, helping Washington overcome its own awful shooting night (34 percent). The Huskies are playing a solid, tough, in-your-face, man-to-man style with all five players trusting in the system and helping whenever there is dribble penetration. With center Aziz N'Diaye and power forward Desmond Simmons anchoring them, the Huskies have changed their identity.

"We get our identity from those guys," Gaddy said of N'Diaye and Simmons. "They love playing defense, and it just amps us up."

It's a style of play born out of necessity. Perhaps if the Huskies could score as effortlessly as some of their past teams, they would relent. But in losing five nonconference games, the Huskies (12-5) learned all about their limitations. And they're tired of hearing about what they aren't.

Here's what they are, though: A squad with a veteran starting lineup that features three seniors, a redshirt junior and a redshirt sophomore. Romar has always figured out a way with veteran teams, and it appears that this group is no different. The ability to make adjustments and heed the scouting report is paying huge dividends.

So is this team's maturity. It realizes what it must do to win.

"I think we've made a lot of progress," Romar said, smiling.

Is he satisfied with the improved defense?

"We can get a lot better," he said, smiling wider.

Ugly is the new pretty. And winning is becoming a habit again.

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

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