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Washington freezes out competition in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- There was certainly reason for at least a
little bit of skepticism.

When this college basketball season began, it was difficult to
really know what to make of the University of Washington. Lorenzo
Romar's team did return five starters from last season. The Huskies do
have a legitimate star in guard Nate Robinson. And U-Dub has the potent
combination of a crazy offense and a swarming defense that leaves one
wondering whether they drink Red Bull or Gatorade in the huddle.

While that's all good, history made it difficult to know whether
the Huskies were really legitimate. Was Washington the team that closed
last regular season by winning 14 of 16 games? Or would the Huskies
revert back to the team that opened the season 5-8? Which was the truer
picture: The losses at Wyoming and Houston? Or the victory over then-No.
1 Stanford?

Those questions were answered for good at this week's Great
Alaska Shootout. Facing the toughest draw of the teams in Anchorage, the
Huskies' buffet included one serving of Utah, a helping of
Oklahoma and a Saturday night main course of No. 19 Alabama. How good
was Washington (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today; No. 22 AP) this week? Let's just say our guy Andy Katz shouldn't
have to think twice when it comes to picking his Team of the Week.

"They hit big shot after big shot after big shot," Alabama coach
Mark Gottfried said after his team's 79-76 loss. "Washington is a very
good basketball team.

"Not only are they experienced, they're good. They have quality
experience."

If there was any doubt amongst the Huskies players where this
team fits on the national landscape, it vanished in Alaska. They proved
they could win close games. They showed in the victory over the Utes
that they can beat a team with a good big man. And they eliminated the
question of whether they could rebound against bigger front lines, outrebounding both Oklahoma and Alabama.

"This was a statement that we're the real deal," forward Bobby
Jones said. "If we keep our mind to it, we can beat anybody.

"We have a veteran team and veteran teams do special things."

Romar, in just his third season at Washington, knows what his
team accomplished.

"For us to come out on top here against three outstanding teams
is something that I don't know if our guys really understand what we
were able to accomplish," Romar said.

"I just don't think we'll play against three teams of this
magnitude consecutively until we possibly get to the Pac-10 tournament
or possibly to the NCAA Tournament. This was a tough field for us."

And the amazing thing is that the Huskies did all of this while
short-handed. Tre Simmons sat out the game against the Utes after playing
in an unsanctioned summer league. While he returned for the game against
the Sooners, it wasn't long before guard Brandon Roy went down with a
hyperextended right knee. Roy watched the victory over the Crimson Tide
-- a team that returned four starters from last season's Elite Eight team
-- from the bench in street clothes.
Guard Will Conroy, who scored 18 points against Alabama, said
that depth is the one thing that gets overlooked by people when they
talk about the Huskies. The perception is that Washington is guard Nate
Robinson and a few other guys. While Robinson is clearly one of the top
guards in the country, the Huskies are not simply a one-man team.

"Nate brings us a lot of national attention and he's a great
player," Conroy said. "But then when people come and see us play,
they're like, 'Who's that guy? And who's that other guy? These guys are
really good.'"

While a Shootout victory doesn't guarantee anything -- last
season's winner, Purdue, didn't sniff the NCAA Tournament -- the Huskies
certainly have the look of a team that can be very good. Because other
than a lack of size up front, there are few holes in this Washington
team.

Romar's team has an abundance of guards, it has players at every
position who can make perimeter shots and the Huskies have the desire
and aptitude to play great defense. There are certainly a lot of teams
nationally that have two of the three, but how many have all three?

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, who preaches defense first,
defense second and rebounding third, was impressed after the Huskies
torched his team on Friday night.

"Washington is a great, not a good, a great offensive team,"
Sampson said. "They don't have anybody that can't make a shot."

Said Gottfried: "When you start to study them, you see that they
scored 96 on Oklahoma. Then you look back to last year and what they did
against Arizona. They're putting points on everybody. They can score."

Dating back to last season, Washington has scored at least 75
points in 19 of 21 games. The Huskies scored at least 85 points in 11 of
those games.

But this isn't one of those high-powered offensive teams that
doesn't guard anyone. "We always play like we have a chip on our
shoulder," Jones said. Much of Washington's offense is predicated on
forcing opponents into bad decisions and creating turnovers.

"We try to put points on the board and make as many stops as we
can to get more points on the board," Robinson said.

Said Conroy: "When we get on the break, the other team better
have their track shoes on."

To a man, the Washington players say this team has the makings
of something special.

"Everybody wants to win 20 times more than last year," Robinson
said.

"We can go so far. Every guy on this team brings something
special."

How good can this Washington team be? They certainly look like a
team that can win the Pac-10 and could make a significant splash
nationally. That's all well and good, but Washington has something it
wants to take care of first.

The Huskies want to be the best team in the state of
Washington.

On Wednesday, Washington gets another shot at Gonzaga, a game
being played in the Zags' new arena. The Huskies have lost six
consecutive games to Gonzaga, including a 24-point waxing last season
in Seattle.

"I get tired of losing to them," Robinson said. "I know we're in
for a fight. It's going to be crazy, they've got a new stadium. The guys
are going to be ready."

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.