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Originally published Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 12:56 PM

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Steve Kelley

Streaking Washington Huskies have golden opportunity in NCAA tournament

Washington comes into the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, and has a solid chance to advance to the Sweet 16.

Seattle Times staff columnist

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Everything they wanted when practice started last October still is there for the Washington Huskies.

All of the promise they brought into the season, all of the expectations their fervid fans carried into the Hec Ed hot house, night after noisy night, all the spoils from the long hours in the gym remain theirs to spend.

They have this weekend to erase all of the bad memories from January and February, the home losses to Oregon and USC, the ill-fated trips to the desert Southwest and Southern California.

Win a couple of games this weekend, beginning with Thursday afternoon's first-round NCAA game against Marquette, and the Huskies' season will be an unqualified success.

All of the concerns about center Matthew Bryan-Amaning's lack of aggression inside and Abdul Gaddy's timidity at the point will evaporate.

Isaiah Thomas', um, sometimes-questionable shot selection and the seasonlong inconsistencies from Washington's reserves will be excused.

It's all here for Washington. After all of the disappointments, the Huskies have this chance to advance farther this season than last season's conference regular-season championship team advanced.

The Huskies come into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, winners of seven in a row and eight out of their past nine. Washington is 12-2 over the past month, and its Pac-10 tournament championship win over California probably was the best-played game in the conference this season.

Bryan-Amaning has found his inner scorer. Granted, his points have come against the soft-centered Pac-10 defenses, but he's playing with more confidence than he has had since early last season.

Washington's guards, who were reluctant to dump the ball into Bryan-Amaning during his midseason struggles, are forcing fewer shots and finding him in solid post-up positions. And, finally, Bryan-Amaning is going hard to the hoop, instead of fading away from the basket.

The awakening of Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday's discovery of a jump shot that complements his lockdown defense have given Washington go-to weaponry they didn't have a month ago.

After they were swept in late January at UCLA and USC, I doubted whether Washington was tough enough to turn around the season, but they come into the insanity of the postseason with the most valuable commodity in the game, momentum.

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Washington has a legitimate shot at the Sweet 16.

These Huskies have this chance to give the rock of their roster, senior Quincy Pondexter, a proper sendoff before he leaves for the NBA.

It's all there for Washington.

Considering the Pac-10's soiled reputation, this is as good a first-round game as Washington could have hoped for. And this matchup with Marquette is one of the most interesting of this wide-open tournament's first day.

Although the Huskies are an 11 seed and Marquette a No. 6 seed, this practically feels like a pick-'em game. This is one of the thinnest brackets in years, and Marquette is one of the weakest six seeds in recent history.

The Golden Eagles are more like an eight and the Huskies a nine.

Marquette is as small up front as a Pac-10 school. The Golden Eagles were outrebounded by an average of more than one board a game and were smashed on the glass 44-24 in their 23-point loss to Georgetown in the Big East semifinals.

And there should be something resembling a home-court edge for the Huskies. Romarville will be transplanted inside HP Pavilion.

But now the bad news for Washington.

Coming from their turnover-sodden conference, where Washington's offense was fueled by the mistakes of its opponents, the Huskies now face a team that takes care of the ball as if it were a diamond necklace borrowed for the Oscars.

Marquette had only eight turnovers in its Big East tournament upset of Villanova and, even in the loss to Georgetown, committed only six turnovers.

The Golden Eagles are tough. They survived in a conference where everybody plays defense with Washington's ferocity. They can take a punch. They won't be intimidated by Venoy Overton's tenacity and Holiday's length.

And Marquette makes threes.

This is a perfect way to begin one of the best stretches in the sport calendar. And, for Washington, it's a golden opportunity against the Golden Eagles.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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