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Huskies Toughen Up For Pac-10 With Ucla In Turmoil, UW Sees A Chance To Get In On Banging At Door To Title Room

Bob Bender was talking about Jim Harrick’s unexpected departure from UCLA.

“They’re definitely vulnerable now,” the fourth-year Washington men’s basketball coach said. “There’s going to be distractions all winter long about who’s going to be the next coach there. How do they deal with that throughout the year?”

People have been taking advantage of the Huskies for years. Finally, the downtrodden Washington program appears ready to challenge the Pacific-10 Conference elite.

After going 16-12 and earning a trip to the National Invitation Tournament a year ago, the Huskies think they’re good enough to win 20 and go to the NCAA Tournament this season.

With Harrick suddenly out the door at UCLA, Washington hopes the Pac-10 title door is open.

“You hate to try to take advantage of other people’s misfortunes, but that’s kind of the nature of athletics,” Bender said.

So how good will Bender’s 1996-97 Huskies be?

“I think we’re a pretty good team,” said forward Mark Sanford, who averaged 16-1/2 points as a sophomore last season.

“I think we could have a very good season,” said 7-foot center Todd MacCulloch, a sophomore, and member of the Canadian national team.

“I don’t think we had the toughness at the end of last year,” Bender said. “I think we have it this year.”

Washington still doesn’t have the talent that UCLA or Arizona or Stanford have this season, but its closed the talent gap remarkably. After the Andy Russo and Lynn Nance disaster years that followed Marv Harshman’s 1985 retirement, Bender has rebuilt a program that was in shambles when he arrived. His first two Huskies teams won a combined total of 14 games - just five in his first season.

Bender lost last season’s starting backcourt, but has brought in junior college transfer Jan Wooten, who’ll be his point guard after recovering from a dislocated elbow that may sideline him a month, and landed Deon Luton, a 6-4 freshman guard from Del City, Okla.

They join a returning cast headed by 6-4 senior Jamie Booker, Sanford and MacCulloch, as well as Donald Watts, 7-1 German Patrick Femerling and Chris Thompson. Junior forward Jason Hartman, who averaged 8.5 points as a freshman and 7.1 as a sophomore, decided this past week to transfer out, leaving some playing time for 6-7 freshman Chris Walcott.

The Huskies open at Hec Edmundson Pavilion tonight against Brigham Young


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