WASHINGTON,March 23 – When media day for the Washington NCAA men’s regional began Thursday,questions were flying at George Mason coach Jim Larranaga and Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon:
How does it feel to be playing 20 miles from home? Did you really think that there would be a Sweet Sixteen rematch of February’s Bracketbuster game? What does a Sweet Sixteen truly mean for such small programs?
With a regional semifinal pitting two mid-major Cinderellas,it was easy to forget that the second game features No. 5-seed Washington and No. 1-seed Connecticut.
But that game boasts enough story lines to fill an issue of Sports Illustrated.
Take Pac-10 player of the year Brandon Roy. He’s posted 20 or more points in 18 games this season,and has led Washington to its second consecutive Sweet Sixteen while averaging 20.2 points,5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
Still,somehow,he’s flown under the national radar.
“If I played on the East Coast,I think I’d be a household name,” the Seattle native said. “But I’m a household name on the West Coast,which is all right with me.”
One thing is for sure,though,Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun knows who he is.
“There are kids who score,there are kids who rebound … and there are kids who have a feel for the game,” said Calhoun,who is in his 20th season at Connecticut. “(Roy) has all of those attributes … and if he’s not one of the best two or three kids in the country,then I guess I’ve lost my judgment about how good a guy can be.”
The last time UConn and Washington met in the tournament was the 1998 regional semifinal in Greensboro,N.C.,when Richard Hamilton hit a put-back buzzer-beater that Calhoun called one of the greatest shots he’s ever seen.
Since then,Washington has largely struggled,while Connecticut won national titles in 1999 and 2004. Washington is trying to get to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1953,when the team went to the Final Four and finished third. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar knows just how important a win Friday could be for his program.
“I think it would be fantastic if we were fortunate enough to advance,” said Romar,in his fourth year with the Huskies. “These guys (seniors Roy,Bobby Jones and Jamaal Williams) have accomplished a lot that hasn’t happened in 50 years,and you have to give those guys a lot of credit.”
Other story lines include the undersized Washington post men,including 6-foot-6 Williams,6-7 Jones,6-7 Jon Brockman and 6-8 Mike Jensen going up against UConn’s twin-tower posts Josh Boone,6-10,and Hilton Armstrong,6-11. Plus there’s Washington’s All-Pac-10 freshman guard Justin Dentmon facing Connecticut’s do-it-all point man Marcus Williams,who scored 20-plus points in the Huskies' tournament wins against Kentucky and Albany.
Finally,the late night start – 9:57 EST – could be a factor.
“It’s a time we have to play,” Calhoun said. “I don’t think for college kids it makes any difference. I talked to players today and asked them,’How’d you sleep last night?’ They said they went to bed early – they were in bed by 1:15 a.m.”
Hopefully,everyone else on the East Coast will stay tuned,otherwise they might miss a memorable semifinal.