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Originally published Wednesday, February 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Huskies say they have changed since blowout

Different Huskies, same Cougars. That's the forecast for tonight's second leg of the Apple Cup of basketball at Edmundson Pavilion. The Washington Huskies profess...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Different Huskies, same Cougars.

That's the forecast for tonight's second leg of the Apple Cup of basketball at Edmundson Pavilion. The Washington Huskies profess to be a changed team from the one that ventured to Pullman three and a half weeks ago. Like many of the fans that made the trip that day, the Huskies were snowed under, 75-47.

"We're more of a team now," said freshman Phil Nelson. "We're more prepared mentally and physically. We are together. We didn't play hard [in the first game]. We didn't play as a team."

They also didn't play with 7-foot center Spencer Hawes, sidelined after suffering a sprained ankle in practice the day before. No one on Montlake attributes the entire margin to the absence of Hawes, but they are eager to see how the Huskies will fare against the Cougars with him. Especially Hawes, who could do nothing but stew on the bench as WSU blew the game open.

"It's a lot easier to take when you have a part in it," Hawes said.

That game was the low point of a 1-6 start to the Pac-10 season for the Huskies, who have since won five of six to climb back into contention for an NCAA tournament bid.

The Cougars, meanwhile, have continued to row merrily along, also winning five of six to all but sew up their first NCAA tournament bid since 1994.

In fact, the talk now is whether the Cougars can overtake first-place UCLA, which leads them by a half-game in the Pac-10. Five games remain in the conference season.

But first-year WSU coach Tony Bennett said he doesn't think his players are getting caught up in that type of conjecture.

"It's uncharted waters for us, if you want to go that far, but you still just try to play quality basketball," Bennett said. "You focus on playing good basketball, then all that other stuff will take care of itself."

The Huskies expect to see the same style of game from the Cougars, despite the fact that Hawes will be in the lineup.

Much of WSU's success revolves around its relentless defense, which has held opponents to 39.5 percent shooting. One of WSU's basic strategies is to double team the post, forcing the opposition's big men to kick the ball outside.

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For that reason, the loss of Hawes might have hurt UW more against WSU than it would have against any other Pac-10 team because one of Hawes' strengths is passing.

"They obviously do a really good job of it, but if you know how to exploit it and prepare for exploiting it, it's kind of a high-risk, high-reward kind of thing," Hawes said. "So we've been practicing on that. If they trap, there's going to be someone open. It's just finding that person."

Bennett said the Cougars won't change much, if at all, even with Hawes healthy.

"Our system is our system," Bennett said. "Yeah, we make small adjustments to different personnel. We know how good of a scorer he is and how good of a passer. We'll pretty much play it the same way but just be very aware of his presence."

The biggest difference from the first meeting, however, might simply be location.

Washington, 1-7 on the road, is 15-1 at home. And while the Cougars have won the past three meetings and enter the game with their highest ranking in school history (10th), the Huskies are 1 ½-point favorites.

The Huskies also might have desperation on their side.

Despite the winning streak, their NCAA tournament odds remain long, with the next four days telling a lot. The Huskies will play at No. 7 Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Note

• TV viewers will have a variety of options for finding tonight's game. Outside of a 75-mile radius of Seattle, the game will be telecast as regularly scheduled on FSN. Inside that radius, the game will not be on FSN due to a conflict with the Sonics. Those with Comcast will find it on Channel 17 in Seattle and Channel 76 in Bellingham. The game also is on Fox College Sports Central, which can be found on Channel 650 for those with DirecTV and Channel 448 on Dish Network. Also, it is on FCS Central on Wave Broadband and Click! Network.

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