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Originally published Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball | At last, a riveting rivalry game

Finally, the Apple Cup of basketball has a little shine to it. For years, it has played the ugly stepchild to the football version, which...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Finally, the Apple Cup of basketball has a little shine to it.

For years, it has played the ugly stepchild to the football version, which has often in the past 25 years helped decide Rose Bowls and conference championships and inspired memories that last decades.

Basketball? Lots of seasons of David Dixon facing Cedrick Hughey.

And in those years when one team has been good — like the Huskies the past three years — the other usually hasn't.

But this year, each team carries into the game winning records and legitimate postseason tournament hopes. And with rosters filled with players who won't be going anywhere anytime soon, this is an in-state basketball revival that figures to have some legs.

In fact, this is the latest the teams have met in a season when each has had a winning record since 1996. That may be the biggest reason WSU is expecting its largest crowd for a game since at least 1995, with Beasley Coliseum already sold out.

Surprisingly, it's the Cougars who have the better record today, 15-3 overall and 4-2 in Pac-10 play, while Washington's much-hyped young roster has faltered to 11-6 and 1-5 in conference play.

Today

UW men @ WSU, 3 p.m., FSN

That, coupled with the fact the Cougars beat UW twice last season — one of the great oddities a year ago, considering WSU finished last in the Pac-10 and Washington advanced to the Sweet 16 — makes this a contest the Huskies have had circled for some time.

"With the two losses last year, I think the returnees and even the freshmen have a feel that this is a big game for us," said sophomore forward Jon Brockman.

They'd better, or Washington's margin for error this season will get that much slimmer.

The Huskies' stumble out of the Pac-10 gate has left their NCAA tournament hopes — seen as a given just three weeks ago — in a precarious state. No Pac-10 team has made the tournament with less than a 10-8 conference record; Washington would have go to 9-3 the rest of the way to accomplish that. The only time a Pac-10 team has started 1-5 and made the tournament was when the Huskies did it in 2004. Interestingly, they played their seventh Pac-10 game that season in Pullman, as well.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar staved off questions of his team's tournament hopes this week, saying, "It's still too early. But we better giddyup and get going, that's for sure."

Washington's hopes today will rest in part on improved play from freshman center Spencer Hawes, who has been battling a flu-like illness that has caused him to lose at least 15 pounds. He has struggled the past four games since the illness hit, but said some rest this week helped him get closer to normal. With Hawes ailing and Brockman turning in a rare energy-free performance, the Huskies were outrebounded for the first time all season last Saturday at California, losing 77-69 in overtime.

Washington players and coaches said this week's practices have been more intense than usual.

"I think we've made some strides," Hawes said. The Huskies, however, still have other injury questions. Freshman forward Quincy Pondexter is battling a sprained ankle and guard Adrian Oliver a quadriceps bruise, though both are expected to play.

A few hours after Washington lost Saturday, the Cougars suffered a similar overtime defeat a few miles south at Stanford, losing 71-68. That defeat could have been viewed as an inevitable bump in the road for a team that jumped out to its best start since the 1982-83 season. But first-year coach Tony Bennett — apparently on the way to completing the rebuilding job begun by father Dick the previous three seasons — sounded an alarm this week that maybe the early success had gone to his players' heads.

"You have to know who you are and how you've gotten to where you've been, and maybe that's something we have to readdress," Bennett said.

The past few seasons, this game has been a compelling contrast in styles, with the Huskies running as much as any team in the country and the Cougars on the other end, a horse-and-buggy in comparison. That difference in style seemed to favor the Cougars last season, when they beat the Huskies 78-71 in Seattle and 77-64 in Pullman.

But Bennett has loosened the reins on his team a bit with the key players all in their third year in the system, while the Huskies have slowed down just a tad to take advantage of the presence of Hawes and Brockman inside.

For once, it all bears watching.

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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