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Originally published Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ugly past for Ducks basketball now at UW

Every week, the coach talks optimistically of the next game being the one when things will finally fall in place, when the turnaround for...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Every week, the coach talks optimistically of the next game being the one when things will finally fall in place, when the turnaround for his undeniably talented but young team will begin in earnest.

There have been plenty of close defeats that back up his belief that, despite an unseemly record, things really aren't as bad as they might appear.

Lorenzo Romar, you're thinking?

Well, him too, as the Washington coach said again this week that maybe the 8 p.m. game today against Oregon will kick-start the Huskies, who are 11-7 overall, but a mere 1-6 in Pac-10 play.

A year ago in Eugene, however, it was Oregon coach Ernie Kent singing this tune on a regular basis. He was forced virtually every week to defend why his roster full of high-school All-Americans could seemingly do nothing more than lose close games.

"It's not that we were horrible," Kent said of Oregon's 15-18 record last season. "It just had to do with winning. Once we got the feeling of winning, we've been running in that direction ever since."

And for the moment, leaving their bitter rivals to the north behind, with UW and Oregon essentially switching places in a year's time.

A season after Brandon Roy powered UW to a second-place conference finish, it's Kent and the Ducks riding high behind a Seattle-bred senior who seems destined to be the Pac-10's player of the year.

The juicy subplot to the game tonight, however, is that Franklin High grad Aaron Brooks has to sit out as punishment for his forearm across the face of UW guard Ryan Appleby in the Pac-10 tournament last year.

The absence of Brooks, who leads the conference in scoring, could be the break the Huskies sorely need to stop a slump that has seen them win just once since Dec. 22.

But the Ducks have proven to be a resilient flock this season as they have risen to No. 7 in the country with an 18-1 overall record, 6-1 in Pac-10 play. All seven conference games have been decided by eight points or less, with Oregon winning its six games by a combined 27 points. A year ago, Oregon lost eight games by three points or less.

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"It's just the maturity and the added confidence of the players," said junior forward Maarty Leunen, one of five starters back from last year, and one of four players who were part of a recruiting class that arrived in 2004 hailed as possibly the best in school history. But that foursome, including guard Malik Hairston, who was the most heralded of the group, struggled to find its footing the past two years.

The first season seemed easy enough to blame on inexperience. When it happened again last year, though, Kent fell under increasing criticism, and a rollover clause in his contract was not exercised, further evidence of his precarious state.

Injuries and chemistry, however, also were to blame. Kent helped solved the latter by jettisoning troublesome junior-college transfer forward Ivan Johnson, who now is at Cal State-San Bernardino.

Kent also said he thinks the team bonded during a summer trip to the Bahamas (teams are allowed such foreign tours once every four years; UW is contemplating one of its own next summer).

"Winning gives you better chemistry," Kent said. "But because of the Bahamas trip and everything we've gone through, we've had better chemistry."

Leunen says the motivation was simple.

"We didn't want to have another season like that," he said. "We had to put aside all the individual things and play as a team. No one wanted to not be in the postseason again."

The Ducks also went with a smaller lineup and have sped things up a bit, averaging 80 points compared to 65.8 last season.

Oregon's only defeat is a two-pointer at home to USC. It has handed UCLA its only loss of the year and also won at Arizona and Georgetown in jumping out to its best start since the 1926-27 season.

"Now they are winning those close games," Romar said. "A year of maturity has certainly helped their cause."

A year Romar and the Huskies seem to be painfully reliving.

Notes

• Washington center Spencer Hawes, who missed the game against Washington State last Saturday, practiced again Wednesday and is expected to be available tonight. Romar, however, said he had not settled on a starting lineup and won't until today.

• Romar said Tuesday that guard Joel Smith, out all season with a stress fracture in his right foot but expected to return soon, will not redshirt this season. However, the timetable for Smith's return continues to be pushed back. Romar hoped Smith would be back for the trip to Arizona next week, but a team spokesman said Wednesday that Smith probably will not play next week and his status will then be re-evaluated before the home game Feb. 8 against California.

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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