WASHINGTON, D.C. — They share a nickname, and tonight they will again share the NCAA tournament stage.
And the Washington Huskies hope that when the curtain closes, they might also share some of the Connecticut Huskies' pedigree. The teams meet at the Verizon Center at 6:57 p.m. with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
It's a place UConn has been five times since 1995 — tied for the most behind only Kentucky (seven) in that span — but somewhere Washington hasn't been since 1953, having lost three times in the Sweet 16 since then.
"They've done it, and now here's our opportunity to do it against a team that's done it before," said UW senior Jamaal Williams. "This is one of those barriers this university has not gotten over. We have an opportunity to get that out of the way and move on."
Their opponent tonight, however, is illustrative of just how high that barrier can seem, something UW athletic director Todd Turner witnessed firsthand.
Turner held the same position at Connecticut from 1987 to 1990, when the school was just beginning to make its move in basketball. UConn began the climb first by committing to building a new on-campus arena, then by hiring the best coach it could find in Jim Calhoun (a rising star at nearby Northeastern).
"Those two things kind of parallel what's happened at Washington," Turner said, referring to the renovation of Edmundson Pavilion in 2000 and the hiring of Lorenzo Romar two years later. UConn's membership in the Big East, formed in 1979 with an emphasis on men's basketball, didn't hurt.
Washington vs. Connecticut
Where: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C. Time: 6:57 p.m. today. TV: Ch. 7. Radio: KJR (950 AM). The line: UConn by 6.
But while UConn got as far as the Elite Eight in 1990, the school didn't get to the Final Four until 1999.
"It just shows you how difficult it is to reach that high of a plateau," Turner said. Washington, though, also shows how difficult it can be just to get this far.
The last time UW and UConn met in the NCAA tournament, in 1998, Washington's Huskies seemed a program on the rise — the pain of that last-second loss eased by what appeared to be a promising future. Instead, coach Bob Bender couldn't keep it going, and Romar came in to pick up the pieces. When he took over, he found some talented players already on hand, among them Brandon Roy and Mike Jensen, each now seniors who have helped lead the Huskies back to contention, including a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago that ended in a loss to Louisville.
"We were a little bit overanxious about being in that situation," Williams said. "We were happy and complacent with it. But we didn't finish the job, and we know here's another chance."
Said Romar: "It would be monumental for our program to get to this next step."
Maybe as monumental as simply getting to the hoop tonight against a UConn team that is 29-3 and the region's No. 1 seed.
Romar says a bigger factor than combating the pressure of being in the Sweet 16 will be the size and talent of UConn's players — the Huskies start a front line of 6-foot-9 Rudy Gay, 6-10 Josh Boone and 6-11 Hilton Armstrong. Washington will counter with speed and quickness. Last week, UW won a similar battle against Illinois, which also had imposing size.
Still, Romar said, "They pose more matchup problems for us than we pose for them."
Washington coaches are batting around ideas for dealing with those problems. They might again use 6-7 forward Bobby Jones to defend the point guard — 6-3 Marcus Williams — as they did last week against Illinois, though that would force 5-11 Justin Dentmon to likely take on 6-6 Denham Brown. Or they could use Roy more at point guard and go with a bigger lineup.
But UConn has seen such tactics before and almost always has prevailed, leading Roy to conclude, "We're definitely going to need them to make some mistakes in order to win."
Washington's players base much of their hopes on UConn's habit of sometimes taking a few minutes off — it trailed No. 16 seed Albany for most of the first 30 minutes in the first round before rallying.
"You look at their roster on paper, and it's like we have no chance," Jones said. "But they don't play 40 straight minutes of great basketball, so we know we have a chance to make some runs and keep ourselves in the game."
Calhoun admitted, "We've been a team of lapses."
Romar said with a laugh that he would love to get his program to the point where it could be 29-3 and be accused of suffering "lapses."
Getting there takes winning games like tonight's.
"If we win this game, it will be one of the biggest wins in Washington's basketball history," Jones said. "But it could also be our last game [for Jones and fellow seniors Roy, Williams and Jensen], so there's a lot at stake. But if you think about that too much you might get nervous or distracted, so we're just trying to approach it like it's another game."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org