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Originally published January 29, 2012 at 8:27 PM | Page modified January 30, 2012 at 10:24 AM

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Pac-12 race too close to call, but UW has good shot at title

Out of the ashes of their foundering start, the Huskies have emerged as the team to beat in the Pac-12 Conference.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Thursday

UCLA @ UW, 6 p.m., ESPN

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Terrence Ross demanded the ball in the low post. Tony Wroten played more under control and got his teammates involved. C.J. Wilcox looked healthy again and so did his stroke.

Collectively Washington rebounded with an avaricious hunger, the way Lorenzo Romar-coached teams are supposed to rebound.

On Saturday, Washington won another cliff-hanger with Arizona and out of the ashes of their foundering start, the Huskies have emerged as the team to beat in the Pac-12 Conference.

Who would have thought?

Make no mistake, this race still is too close to call. This team has more to prove and easily could lay an egg Thursday at home against UCLA.

The Huskies' RPI still is a humbling 72, below schools like Ohio, Bucknell, Marshall and La Salle.

But entering the second half of the conference season, Washington seems to have the easiest path through the Pac-12. At 7-2, and tied with California for the conference lead, it has two games left with USC and one each with Washington State and Arizona State.

The Huskies don't travel to the Bay Area. They are done with Colorado and their most difficult remaining stretch is their journey to the Willamette Valley the weekend after next.

Last weekend in the desert, this team that has been dreadful away from Hec Ed got two road wins, which are like gold in this season of Pac-12 parity.

For the Huskies, this has been their season of living dangerously. They have been hard to recognize and, at times, I've thought that Romar was doing the worst job of his decade at his alma mater.

Washington wasn't playing hard. Players weren't playing together, weren't hitting the floor after loose balls and weren't attacking the glass.

Ross, who was their most dependable post-up player, seemed content to linger on the perimeter. Wroten, their best passer, wasn't distributing the ball.

Darnell Gant and Abdul Gaddy weren't being the leaders they needed to be. And Wilcox wasn't touching the ball in the places on the floor where he was most dangerous.

The argument that Washington was young may have been true, but let's face it, every team in college basketball in 2012 is young. Kentucky's young. Duke's young. In today's world, a team with three sophomore starters is considered a veteran team.

With four future NBA players on its roster (Wroten, Ross, Wilcox and center Aziz N'Diaye), Washington looked veteran enough and talented enough to win the conference.

But every Romar team has come together at its own pace. He has shown a Job-like patience with this team. Publicly, he's never lost confidence. And slowly he has gotten it to play his style.

The win over Arizona wasn't pretty. There was a stretch in the first half when Washington had almost a dozen straight wasted offensive trips. The Huskies still rushed shots and forced passes into traffic.

But they made cold-blooded shots. They played unselfishly, they forced turnovers and they ran with purpose.

Let's be realistic. Arizona is not the elite team it was a year ago. It has no size and no player who can take a defender off the dribble. It is another limited team in a limited conference.

Such is the state of the Pac-12 in 2012.

Still, this is a title the Huskies can win. They can make it to their fourth straight NCAA tournament. And they have enough talent to pull an upset in March.

Wroten's block at the rim of Josiah Turner's last-second drive in the win over Arizona had the feel of Nate Robinson's buzzer-beating, game-tying three-pointer at Oregon State in 2004.

It was a catalyst play.

In Romar's second season, the Huskies were 0-5 in the conference before Robinson led a late-game rally. The Huskies won that game in overtime, the start of their first run to the NCAA tournament in the Romar era.

Wroten's block was the kind of last-second magic that seems to happen often to Washington at about this point in the season. It felt like a turnaround play in a season on the brink.

It was a reminder of the resilience of Romar-coached teams. A statement that there is a lot of life left in these Huskies.

The Huskies are starting another march toward March. Suddenly, another Husky hoop season is starting to get interesting.

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

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