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Originally published Thursday, December 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Huskies men tip off run for Pac-10 title

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar calls winning the Pac-10 men's basketball championship a mostly "unverbalized goal. " "We talk more about...

Seattle Times staff reporter

LOS ANGELES — Washington coach Lorenzo Romar calls winning the Pac-10 men's basketball championship a mostly "unverbalized goal."

"We talk more about day-to-day, drill-to-drill effort, and that if that is taken care of, the other things take care of themselves," he said.

The Pac-10 title has been an almost-realized goal the past few years, with the Huskies finishing a game behind Arizona in 2005 and UCLA last season (Washington was also second in 2004, five games behind Stanford).

The Huskies are expected to again occupy such a lofty berth when this season ends. But unlike the last two years, when veteran-laden teams seemed destined to finish high from the outset, Romar admits to feeling a little more uncertainty as Pac-10 play begins at 7:30 tonight at USC.

"But I can say that if everything comes together, I can definitely see us finishing somewhere near the top," Romar said.

And after a first month of the season when the Huskies mostly looked overrated, the pieces have begun falling in place the last three games, notably an 88-72 home win over Louisiana State. Washington has a 10-1 record entering Pac-10 play.

Still, questions remain for a Huskies team that has played just two ranked teams — LSU and Gonzaga — and only one road game (a 97-77 loss at Gonzaga):

Tonight

UW men @ USC, 7:30 p.m., no TV

Can the Huskies win on the road? Players say they learned from the Gonzaga experience and now understand what it takes to win away from home. Washington fans hope so, as the Huskies will play five of their first seven Pac-10 games on the road, including contests Sunday at No. 1 UCLA and games at Stanford (where Romar has never won) and improving Washington State. "I think our preparation for this trip will be a lot better than the Gonzaga trip," said Huskies forward Jon Brockman.

Do the Huskies have enough depth? The Huskies are down to 10 healthy players until guard Joel Smith (foot) makes his expected return sometime next month. But Romar says he's not worried, pointing out that the 1995 UCLA team he assisted on won a national title with just seven players in its regular rotation. Washington has nine players getting 10 or more minutes a game, essentially the same as a year ago (eight played more than 10, with Hans Gasser at 9.8).

Do the Huskies play defense well enough? On paper, this appears to be an issue as the Huskies are allowing a Pac-10-high 74 points per game. But as Romar always points out, that's more a function of UW's style of play than defensive lapses. The more relevant number is that the Huskies are limiting opponents to 41.6 percent shooting from the field (fifth in the conference). Gonzaga shot 50.7 percent against Washington, but six of its last seven opponents haven't bettered 43.3 percent (LSU).

What happens now that opponents will key on Spencer Hawes? Most nights, opponents won't have a player who can take on Hawes individually, meaning he is certain to get a lot of double-teaming. That will bring into increasing play one of Hawes' greatest strengths, his passing. When that happens, the onus will be on the perimeter players to make jump shots, something that failed UW at Gonzaga (5 for 20 on three-pointers) but worked well against LSU (8 for 13).

What is UW's greatest strength? Its rebounding. The Huskies have yet to be outrebounded this season and have a rebounding margin of plus-13.5; that is almost five rebounds a game better than any other conference team. With Brockman and Hawes in the middle and good perimeter rebounders (Quincy Pondexter is averaging 5.2 and Justin Dentmon 4.2), this should stay a strength all season and one Romar says is critical to success. Romar cites rebounding margin as one of three most important stats, the others being field-goal percentage defense and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Haven't turnovers been a little problem? Yes, and that's a definite concern with a young team heading on the road. In fact, the Huskies are just seventh in the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio, losing 17.5 turnovers a game compared to 17.9 assists. The assist number leads the conference, meaning it's more a matter of cutting down turnovers to make improvement here.

Who takes the shot when UW is down one with 3 seconds to go? Last year this was a given with Brandon Roy in tow. The Huskies don't have that type of go-to player this season just yet, though Hawes appears on the verge of becoming one. Figure the ball ends up in his hands to either shoot or pass in such a scenario.

Note

• Rainier Beach High School graduate Lodrick Stewart is having his best season for USC, averaging 14.3 points and shooting 40 percent from three-point range. He also leads the Trojans in steals, and has impressed Romar with his play. "He's playing as good as he has played since he's been in college," Romar said. "It seems like Lodrick has bought into what [USC] coach [Tim] Floyd and his staff are trying to get him to do. He's playing with more purpose."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football

and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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