SEATTLE - There's three weeks to go in the Pac-10 Conference race and the team in control is -- No. 22 Washington.
The Huskies have quietly risen to the top of the conference and need no help from here on out to potentially wrap up the school's first regular season conference title in 24 years. Win their final five games, and it'll be the Huskies adding another year to the banners hanging in their home arena -- not bad for a team picked to finish fifth in the league before the season began.
But while the task sounds simple, it's not. Washington's final push begins Thursday night at No. 20 UCLA, a place the Huskies hold just one victory in the last 22 years. Then comes talent-laden USC, followed by a trio of home games to close the season -- with No. 14 Arizona State, red-hot Arizona and finally rival Washington State on March 7.
The combined overall record of those final five conference foes currently: 85-40. If the Huskies (19-6, 10-3 Pac-10) are to claim just the third regular season conference title for the school since 1953, it will be earned.
"The next three weeks are probably tougher than any three weeks we've had," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.
What has made Washington's season such a surprise is its consistency, especially in conference play. While every other team in the league has experienced a full letdown at one point -- all nine other teams have been swept during a weekend of conference play at least once -- the Huskies are the exception.
When they failed to play defense and faltered in a 106-97 loss at Arizona, the Huskies rebounded with a convincing 84-71 win over then-No. 14 Arizona State two days later. The same scenario played out in the Bay Area, when Washington lost by 15 at California, then came through with a seven-point win at Stanford, where Washington had lost 15 in a row.
If anything, the only concern is the memory of the Huskies' lackluster efforts on Thursday nights in their two conference losses on the road, both setbacks exposing flaws the Huskies have excelled at hiding for much of the season. Against Arizona, it was a lull in defense. Against Cal, it was selfishness on offense. Both issues were brushed aside a few days later as Washington responded with wins.
Now comes their final, and biggest Thursday road test of the season, playing at Pauley Pavilion, a place where Washington owns just one win since 1987. A win Thursday would add legitimacy for a team that has been mostly overlooked. Both Arizona State and UCLA remain ranked ahead of the Huskies in the latest AP Top 25.
"The more we win, the more we play the better teams, the more the respect will come," said freshman guard Isaiah Thomas.
Even the last Washington team to win at least a share of the Pac-10 regular season title -- the 1985 squad that shared the crown with USC -- couldn't pull off a win at Pauley Pavilion. Washington is 6-57 all-time at UCLA, with two of those wins coming in 1952 and 1953.
Washington's only win since 1987 at UCLA came in 2006, a 69-65 comeback win over the Bruins that still holds a special spot in the back of Jon Brockman's mind. Only a freshman then, Brockman scored 12 points as Washington rallied from a double-digit deficit at halftime for the win.
The Huskies have owned UCLA in Seattle, winning five straight over the Bruins. The task this week is matching what the Huskies did three years ago and solving the puzzle of winning in L.A. -- Washington was the last Pac-10 team to sweep both UCLA and USC in the same weekend when it accomplished that in 2006.
"It's a tough place to play, a tough place to pull out a win," Brockman said. "... We've got to come out and play well for the first game of the week. We have to be ready to go. We can't play bad on Thursday and let that wake us up for Saturday."