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Originally published March 15, 2009 at 3:24 PM | Page modified March 16, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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Huskies will face Mississippi State in NCAA opener

Washington was selected as a No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament, and will open play Thursday in Portland against No. 13 seed Mississippi State.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Huskies in the tournament

Record: 14-14

1943 — lost to Texas 59-55; lost to Oklahoma 48-43.

1948 — lost to Baylor 64-62; beat Wyoming 57-47.

1951 — beat Texas A&M 62-40; lost to Oklahoma State 61-57; beat Brigham Young 80-67.

1953 — beat Seattle 92-70; beat Santa Clara 74-62; lost to Kansas 79-53^; beat LSU 88-69^.

1976 — lost to Missouri 69-67.

1984 — beat Nevada 64-54; beat Duke 80-78; lost to Dayton 64-58.

1985 — lost to Kentucky 66-58.

1986 — lost to Michigan State 72-70.

1998 — beat Xavier 69-68; beat Richmond 81-66; lost to Connecticut 75-74.

1999 — lost to Miami, Ohio 59-58.

2004 — lost to Alabama-Birmingham 102-100.

2005 — beat Montana 88-77; beat Pacific 97-79; lost to Louisville 93-79.

2006 — beat Utah State 75-61; beat Illinois 67-64; lost to Connecticut 98-92, OT.

^Final Four.

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Four months after they couldn't get out of Portland fast enough, the Washington Huskies now can't wait to get there.

It was on Nov. 15 that the Huskies opened the season with a loss to the Portland Pilots, a night when the NCAA tournament looked as far away as Pluto.

Thursday, they'll play there again — though this time in the Rose Garden — against Mississippi State at approximately 2 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament, hoping that this bus ride back turns out a little happier.

"It's going to be different," vowed UW guard Isaiah Thomas. "We're going to be more ready than ever. It's an opportunity where you get to keep playing or it could be your last game of the season."

If anything tempered the excitement of Sunday, it was the knowledge of the opponent.

The roar of several hundred people attending a Selection Sunday party initially drowned out the CBS announcers at 3:17 p.m. when UW was first shown as a four seed and in Portland, the desired locale of all in Husky Nation.

But the cheers dropped a few decibels when the opponent then flashed on the screen.

In Mississippi State, which earned its bid earlier in the day by beating Tennessee to win the SEC conference tournament, UW got what looks to be the toughest of the four No. 13 seeds.

"You win the SEC conference tournament, it seems like you'd be better than a 13 seed," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. "But that's what it is."

The Bulldogs were 19-12 during the regular season and 9-7 in SEC play and would have been left out of March Madness if they hadn't won four games in four days to take the conference tournament title. That run included an 80-71 win over Florida, which beat UW in November 86-84, and a 67-57 win over LSU, the SEC regular-season champion.

"I was a little surprised because they are a better team than that listing," said Thomas. "But we are going to be ready for them and they will be ready for us. So it's going to be a war."

Because MSU is on TV a bit, a few of the Huskies had an early working knowledge of the Bulldogs, specifically 6-foot-9 junior forward/center Jarvis Varnado, who is averaging 4.6 blocks, which leads the nation. He was named SEC defensive player of the year for a second consecutive season and is also the team's leading scorer at 13.1 per game, and leading rebounder at 9.0.

"He owns that paint," said UW forward Jon Brockman. "He's kind of a man in his own league. He's got a lot of skills other players have but he's got them all combined into one."

Others noted that the Bulldogs are a fairly deep and athletic team that also likes to play at a quick pace, averaging 75 points during the season.

"I think they are kind of like UCLA because they like to run sets," said UW point guard Justin Dentmon. "We've just got to take them out of what they want to do."

Those efforts will be focused on MSU point guard Dee Bost, named to the SEC all-freshman team after averaging 11.2 points and 4.6 assists. Thomas said he played against Bost last season when each was in prep school. Bost attended Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, which won the Prep School national title a year ago.

"They beat us pretty bad," Thomas said. "He's a good scorer."

Should the Huskies beat MSU, they would likely face Purdue in the second round. Purdue, the No. 5 seed after winning the Big Ten tournament Sunday, will face Northern Iowa.

"We've got two conference tournament champions in our bracket so it's like they are going into the tournament with momentum," Dentmon said. "But we're just going in hungry."

Indeed, the Huskies know there are again some doubters after the loss to Arizona State on Friday in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament.

They've fed off that doubt since the opener in Portland, a shocking 80-76 defeat that they say helped set them on their path to the NCAA tournament.

"It's two different teams," Romar said. "Our roles had not been defined at that point, we didn't really understand what it took to persevere and win ballgames. Now this team understands that much better than it did back then. That's what you play your season for, to learn some of those lessons."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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