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Originally published March 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 24, 2005 at 3:15 PM

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UW Men's Basketball

Will real No. 1 please stand up?

"There's still something to prove," says Washington guard Brandon Roy. "I think people feel like Louisville should have had this one seed. "

Seattle Times staff reporter

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A painted message on the wall leading from the locker rooms to the court here heralds proudly the fact that The Pit — the site of tonight's Louisville-Washington Sweet 16 battle — sits a mile high.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, however, apparently thinks that isn't the only thing around here piled up to such a lofty perch.

Standing in his locker room yesterday after practice for today's 4:10 p.m. game, Pitino said he couldn't understand how Washington could complain any longer about being unnoticed or disrespected.

"They've gotten tremendous respect, without question," Pitino said. "They are on TV more than any team in the country five times over. That's what I don't understand about the whole equation, about them not getting the respect they deserve. They won the Pac-10, they are on TV, Lorenzo (Romar) is a high-profile coach. It's almost themselves saying it more than anybody else, like it's a figment of their imagination."

Any last shred of doubt that really may exist about the Huskies — either legitimately expressed by others or just perceived to be out there by UW players and coaches — will disappear if Washington can beat the Cardinals tonight.

A victory would put the Huskies into the Elite Eight and set up a game with either Texas Tech or West Virginia here Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

It would also be UW's school-record 30th win, a plateau usually reached only by the best of the best in college basketball.

And it would stamp this team as the best in school history in the modern era. The only two UW teams to get this far since 1953 — the 1984 and 1998 teams — each saw their dreams dashed in the Sweet 16.

"This is an opportunity that a lot of kids go through their four years of college and never get, even though they are fantastic basketball players," Romar said. "We want to do our best to try to make the best of it."

And while it would seem to pale in comparison to all of those above achievements, a win tonight would also finally legitimize the Huskies in the eyes of those who still doubt.

Those who feel that Louisville — the No. 4 seed in this region despite winning both the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles and coming into today's game 31-4 — was the team that really had reason to pull the disrespect card.

"There's still something to prove," said Washington guard Brandon Roy. "I think people feel like Louisville should have had this one seed. So now it's almost like the winner of this game is the one that should have had the one seed. Like they matched it up this way on purpose. We're still trying to defend this No. 1 seed we got."

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The best defense for both teams tonight, however, figures to be a good offense.

Washington and Louisville are the No. 2 and No. 3 highest-scoring teams left in the tournament — behind only North Carolina — and many anticipate an Old West shootout between two run-and-gun squads.

Indeed, as UW forward Mike Jensen said, looking at the Cardinals on film "is almost like looking in the mirror."

As often is the case in high-profile games, however, reality might not meet expectation.

While the Huskies are sure to try to run whenever possible, Louisville players and coaches yesterday were preaching patience.

"We need to keep it at our pace," said Louisville guard Taquan Dean. "Keep it in the 60s."

Louisville has succeeded at that quest in its two NCAA tournament games, beating Louisiana-Lafayette 68-62 in the first round and Georgia Tech 76-54 in the second. The Cardinals used a 2-3 zone liberally in each game, holding opponents to 41.5 percent shooting. The zone also mitigates Louisville's relative lack of quickness and depth.

But Dean said the Cardinals might not be able to stay in the zone tonight.

"We're going to have to switch it up, play a little press, a little zone, a little matchup," Dean said.

The Huskies, meanwhile, vow they will play the same game they have all season, if making sure to match Louisville's intensity level.

"I haven't seen a team that plays as hard as they do all year," Jensen said. "They play hard-nosed defense. They rebound the heck out of the ball. I think it's going to come down to who is the toughest is going to win the game."

Maybe even more than that, the game might come down to who better handles the pressure of the situation and their own emotions.

Louisville, once a perennial power, is on the verge of regaining that status in its fourth year under Pitino, who is concurrently reviving his stature as one of the best coaches around after a disastrous stint running the Boston Celtics.

Pitino noted yesterday that the Cardinals have their first seniors he recruited.

"You hope that your first graduating class is the turnaround year for your program," said Pitino, whose team lost in the first round two years ago and the second round last year.

The Huskies, meanwhile, know they have already left a healthy legacy. But as long as the doubters remain — either in reality or only in their minds — there's still more work to do.

"No matter what happens, we've had a lot of accomplishments," Jones said. "But there's one goal that still remains, and that's winning it all. We've got four games left to do that."

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

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