Can Huskies rise above mid-pack?

SEATTLE — Nine games into the non-conference season, University of Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar was asked about the state of the Pacific-12 Conference and he responded by saying that this year’s competition was deeper than its been in recent years, particularly at the bottom.

Then Romar added that the Huskies, who were hovering at 5-4 at the time, were one of those teams at the bottom.

While a four-game winning streak gave UW a bit of a boost before Saturday’s loss at Connecticut, the Huskies (8-5) are still in the unfamiliar position of looking up at most of the Pac-12 as conference play begins.

After learning the hard lesson that a Pac-12 champion doesn’t necessarily get invited to the Big Dance, UW enters conference play this season just trying to forge its way into the mix of contenders. The early departures of Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, along with a slow transition into the high-post offense, have left the Huskies out of the conversation when it comes to the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

The rest of the conference seems to have given some signs that recent Pac-12 disasters may be a thing of the past. Only USC (5-8) had a sub-.500 record in non-conference play, while title favorite Arizona (12-0) has risen all the way up to No. 3 in the national polls. UCLA (10-3) recently knocked off No. 7 Missouri, while Arizona State (11-2), Colorado (10-2) and Oregon (10-2) look like legitimate contenders for a conference title and possible NCAA tournament at-large bids.

The Huskies’ four-year run of winning Pac-12 regular-season or conference tournament titles appears to be in serious jeopardy unless UW can find more complimentary scoring, consistent rebounding and point guard play that can make a difference on both ends of the floor. Wings C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs have been bright spots on the offensive end, but even they have had their struggles at times. Seven-footer Aziz N’Diaye and 6-7 forward Desmond Simmons have shown flashes, while senior point guard Abdul Gaddy continues to get outplayed by opponents.

The glass-half-full approach to UW’s season sees a team that’s growing into a new offense and recovering from a series of preseason injuries. But it might take more than health and maturity for this year’s Huskies to push their way into the territory of rivals like Arizona, UCLA and Colorado when conference play begins this week.

“It’s not a video game where you can start over,” Romar said, “but I just think we’re much better than we were in the early part of the season. Our record doesn’t reflect that, but we can see the improvement that we’ve made.”

It would take a Herculean improvement for UW to challenge Arizona for a run at a fifth consecutive year of conference title honors, but the Huskies could work their way up into the top half of the Pac-12 and possibly even get back into the discussion for an NCAA at-large bid.

But it’s a long way to get there, and the defending Huskies, despite their 0-0 record in conference play, aren’t starting this race anywhere near the front of the pack.

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