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January 31, 2013

Washington not welcoming to the Wildcats

Alaska Airlines Arena, the former "Hec Ed," has not been a pleasant destination for Arizona basketball. The Wildcats last won there in 2007, and head coach Sean Miller has never won on Washington's home floor.

UW is sputtering through a disappointing season - the Huskies enter Thursday night's Pacific-12 Conference tilt 4-3 in league, 12-8 overall - but that takes no luster off Hec Ed's aura.

"It's not as if we've had a tremendous amount of success [against UW]," Miller said in his teleconference on Tuesday.

If there's any opponent that has UA's number, it's UW.

The Huskies have win streaks of five at home, and three games overall against the Wildcats. UA has a way of bringing out the best in these Dawgs.

"Maybe we've played better because we know if you don't, Arizona can make you look bad," UW head coach Lorenzo Romar said.

This became the conference's marquee rivalry in the mid-2000s, when Salim Stoudamire and Brandon Roy were gunning their respective teams to conference supremacy.

Even amid intermittent slumps for each program in recent years, when the Huskies and Wildcats have gotten together, must-watch basketball is guaranteed. UW's three wins during this current win streak came via a combined 13 points. Prior to the skid, UA last won on a Derrick Williams blocked shot as time expired to cap a McKale Center instant classic.

History for this series may not go back as far as UA's rivalry with UCLA, but the precedent for competitiveness gives these meetings an added edge. That intensity manifests itself through one of the most boisterous fanbases in college basketball.

"The Dawg Pack does a tremendous job," Romar said of UW's student section. The noisy throng of exuberant undergrads enjoys some of the best seating in the conference, and their presence is felt from opening whistle to final buzzer.

Husky Stadium was long considered the preeminent home-field advantage in Pac football when UW teams were competing for national championships. That same edge poured into Hec Ed with Romar's arrival more than a decade ago.

Like his coach, senior Solomon Hill is winless in Seattle. He knows firsthand the treachery that awaits visitors playing before the Dawg Pack.

"Very interactive crowd," Hill said. "You have to put [UW as] No. 1 [toughest atmosphere in the conference].

"The way the gym is, and the student section location right behind you, [it's] on your shoulder the whole time."

Also lingering on Hill's shoulder is that losing streak. He told reporters during this week's press conference he's aware of the skid, though it's not central to the team's preparation.

"I'd love to get a win [at] Washington, but I can't look at it as 'I haven't won there, let's go do it.' Because it's not that easy," he said.

With three home losses this season, Romar said "regaining that home-court advantage" was crucial both for turning around the campaign, and repaying the community's loyalty.

The NCAA tournament might be an unlikely return on fan investment for the Huskies this season, but a defeat of a top 10-ranked rival isn't a bad consolation prize. Such is the folly Miller's team faces returning to the spotlight.

"Arizona gets…a lot of teams' best shot because [UA is] so respected around the league and around the country," Romar said.

A replica of the uptempo, high-scoring affairs that have defined this rivalry in recent years might not be in store for Thursday. Romar has introduced a slower philosophy that, before the 76 points scored last week at Oregon, had not exceeded the 60s since before Christmas.

The Huskies get plenty of points from the starting five, four of which average in double figures, led by C.J. Wilcox at 19 points per game. But a lack of depth contributes to the more conservative style.

A lower scoring UW might actually benefit UA's efforts to snap each of its losing skids against the Dawgs. UW averages 72.7 points per game in wins, and just 64.5 in losses.

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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