They know better at Washington than to think Arizona coach Lute Olson was being completely magnanimous with his praise. During the Pac-10's weekly media conference call yesterday...

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They know better at Washington than to think Arizona coach Lute Olson was being completely magnanimous with his praise.



During the Pac-10’s weekly media conference call yesterday, Olson said that Washington “based on how they played in the nonconference would be the team to beat,” as the Pac-10 race gets under way this week.



Olson added it has made no sense to him hearing that Arizona was the favorite, considering the Wildcats lost a lottery pick in Andre Iguodala off last year’s team while Washington “lost no one, and they beat us three times.”



At UW yesterday, the words — which only 12 months ago would have been unfathomable to hear — were met with a shrug. Regarded as little more than a verbal ploy from the coach of the team that figures to be UW’s main rival.



“I think he’s just trying to take a little pressure off of his team,” junior guard Brandon Roy said.



UW coach Lorenzo Romar, meanwhile, attempted to deflect the favorite’s role away.



“We don’t feel like we are the hunted,” Romar said. “We feel like we are (not that far) removed from being 0-5 in conference play, and two or three years from finishing at the bottom of the Pac-10. We are not ready to step up and say we have arrived, because it’s not over yet.”



No, but it’s certainly different.



As conference play begins with the Huskies hosting California on Friday and Stanford on Sunday, there is no dispute anywhere that Washington has as good a chance to win the conference title — its first since 1985 — as anyone.



“I think they are probably as good as any team in the country,” said Stanford coach Trent Johnson.



Not only do the Huskies hold the best record in the Pac-10 at 10-1, but they also lead the nation in scoring and have a No. 5 ranking in at least one RPI calculation.



So try as Romar might, he will have little success convincing anyone that the Huskies are still the gutty, little underdog, something his players acknowledge.



“For the first time since I’ve been here, we are the hunted team, and it’s fun,” Roy said



Romar’s larger point, however — that there figure to be few easy nights for UW anymore — might be worth heeding.



A Pac-10 that was undeniably down a year ago has appeared to prove that it is truly on the rebound.



In fact, through six weeks of nonconference play, an argument could be made that every team in the Pac-10, save one, is in better shape than it was a year ago at a similar time. That one is Stanford, which finished 30-2 a year ago but lost coach Mike Montgomery and star Josh Childress to the NBA and is 6-4.



And Washington must be considered as one of those teams at the top, whether the Huskies want to hear it or not.



“I don’t think we want to be considered the favorites or anything else,” Roy said. “We just want to keep playing hard. The Pac-10 is here, now it’s going to start deciding itself, anyway. There’s no more predictions now.”





Notes



* USC coach Jim Saia said Rainier Beach grad Lodrick Stewart has become a completely different player — in a good way — since his twin brother Rodrick decided to transfer, a move that coincided with the firing of coach Henry Bibby, whose hard-line ways neither Stewart embraced. “He’s been a real pleasure for me to coach,” Saia said of Stewart, who is 10th in the conference in scoring at 13.8. “As an assistant, we had some difficulties with him. But me being head coach, he has turned his whole attitude around and we are really excited about his future. … I don’t think he felt comfortable here for a year and a half. He had one foot in the door and one foot out. Now he has got both feet in the program, at least for this year, and he is excited about playing.”



* Romar said forward Hakeem Rollins, who has missed three games with a right knee injury, should play against Cal.



* Cal starting guard Ayinde Ubaka, out since the third game of the season with a broken foot, will make the trip to Washington but won’t play, said Bears coach Ben Braun.



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