California coach Mike Montgomery, who has roughly 20 years of Pacific-10 Conference experience, cited Washington on Tuesday as holding the inside track to the men’s basketball regular season championship.
“Washington, with three home games, would certainly be in the driver’s seat,” he said, “given that they are in first place as we speak.”
We’d better speak fast, because the No. 21 Huskies’ stay at the top will be up for grabs again Thursday, when they are visited by No. 14 Arizona State, which is one-half game behind.
“I know in terms of league play, it’s probably the biggest game I’ve had since I’ve been a Husky,” UW senior Jon Brockman said. “... It makes it real exciting. I know what the environment is going to be like: It’s going to be wild and crazy. They’re coming in with a lot of energy, a lot of focus and really I’m sure Arizona State is thinking they deserve to be in first place.”
Meanwhile, an equally tight race is brewing down below where USC (7-7 in conference), Oregon State (7-8) and Washington State (6-9) are in a scramble for sixth place. That’s an important spot because it brings an opening-day bye in the Pac-10 tournament, March 11-14 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The seventh- and 10th-place finishers and the eighth- and ninth-place finishers meet on opening day of the tournament, while the first- through sixth-place teams have the day off. That means the bottom four teams’ path to the tournament title demands four wins in four days, while the other six teams need three wins over three days.
That can be an important dividing line, but one that isn’t drawing much discussion – even from the coaches involved.
“We want to play good basketball,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “Wherever that puts us at the end of the year is going to be the case. I don’t know positioning or placing in the Pac-10 tournament. We played good ball on Saturday (an 82-81 win at UCLA). ... To me it’s all about playing good basketball, and if it’s good enough to put you in a spot to play in the postseason, certainly that’s a noble goal and we want that badly. But it starts with concentrating with what’s in front of you.”
What’s in front of the Cougars are home games against Arizona on Thursday and Arizona State on Saturday, followed by the regular-season finale March 7 at Washington.
Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said his team has already exceeded the “two or three” league victories he expected. Down the stretch, he wants to keep the Beavers focused on a goal they can control.
“What we’d like to be able to do is continue to win games so that we can come out of (conference play) with a winning record,” he said. “That’s what you want to be. That would be a good measurement of success. With regard to the Pac-10 tournament, a lot of that is going to be up to teams that are above us. ... We’re not too focused on getting to sixth place. If it works out that we get it, that would be great.”
The Beavers end their regular season with three road games: at Oregon on Sunday and at UCLA and USC next week.
Rare bench view for Thomas
Freshman Isaiah Thomas of Tacoma, UW’s leading scorer, says he can’t remember the last time he was benched at crunch time with the game on the line. But that’s where he was as the Huskies’ gutted out a victory at USC on Saturday.
“That was a game situation where Venoy (Overton’s) defensive pressure had changed the game around, and we just decided to go with that,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “And then Justin Dentmon, down the stretch, he was guarding well, too.”
Thomas admits he felt “weird” watching from the bench, but he couldn’t argue with the result.
“We won and that’s all that matters, but it was something different,” he said. “... It was something that had never happened to me, and I hope it never happens again. But we won.”
Brockman a Naismith finalist
Brockman was named among the 30 finalists for the 2009 Naismith Trophy, presented annually to the nation’s outstanding men’s basketball player. The only other Pac-10 player among the finalists is James Harden of Arizona State.
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808