By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Breathe easy, Husky Nation.
Even though the University of Washington men’s basketball team ended its regular season on a sour note, and had to depend on California’s loss to Stanford on Sunday to back into an outright Pacific-12 Conference regular-season title, that NCAA tournament bid is still waiting for the Huskies — thanks to some recent disappearing acts around the nation.
The rest of the country — not a sudden respect for the Pac-12 or the local misconception that UW has improved by colossal measures over the past six weeks — has made certain that the Huskies will indeed be dancing later this month.
Forget what you’ve heard about a perceived East Coast bias. In reality, what has made UW’s NCAA tourney chances such a lightning rod of conversation in these parts lately is quite the opposite. The reality is that people in these parts have been guilty of failing to look outside their own bubble.
Husky Nation was relying on things like past Pac-12 participation (the conference has never had fewer than two teams in the Big Dance), the so-called “power conference” argument (that the big six conferences are, presumably, destined to get multiple teams into the tournament every year) and the perception that UW has improved immeasurably since Pac-12 play began in January (an assertion that could be made for plenty of teams in more competitive conferences).
What people around here have neglected to see is that there are other teams out there, and most of the ones that matter have done just about everything necessary to open the door for UW … and, quite possibly, two or three other Pac-12 teams to get into the Big Dance.
No less than 14 teams who were in the same conversation as UW for at-large bids with seeds of No. 8 or lower have fallen on hard times.
North Carolina State, Seton Hall and Connecticut — once considered NCAA tourney shoo-ins — had losing streaks of four or more games last month. Other tourney hopefuls like Xavier (5-5 since Jan. 21), Miami (3-4 since mid-February), Texas (7-8 since Jan. 14), Mississippi State (five-game losing streak) and Central Florida (3-3 since Feb. 11) are rapidly playing their way out of the Dance as well. Mid-majors Cleveland State and Wyoming had recent losing streaks that have put promising seasons on ice. And teams like Pitt (lost five in a row after brief resurgence), Maryland (4-9 since Jan. 17), Illinois (2-10 since Jan. 19) and Minnesota (snapped a five-game losing streak Saturday) are just trying to stay alive for NIT bids right about now.
By a conservative count, there are still 13 at-large bids to be had by bubble teams with UW-like resumes. Ten of the bubble teams come from the five power conferences outside the Pac-12, and none of them finished higher than fourth in their league standings.
The Huskies (21-9 overall) have won 10 of their past 12 games, went 14-4 in Pac-12 play and won a conference crown but aren’t necessarily regarded as a lock for NCAA tourney participation. The easy thing for people in the Pacific Northwest bubble to say is that the Huskies have turned things around and are playing as well as anyone in the country. But UW’s turnaround might have as much to do with the demise of the Pac-12, which provided very little fight, as anything.
Case in point: just look at the myriad of issues the Huskies have, despite their success. Depth-wise, it’s one of Lorenzo Romar’s thinnest teams. The Huskies don’t have a legitimate inside scoring threat taller than 6-foot-6, and the team’s leading scorer (Tony Wroten Jr.) has a non-existent jump shot and turns the ball over too much.
The local view was that UW looked better in person than it did on paper, but the reverse is probably more truthful.
UW is one of those sum-is-better-than-the-parts teams, relying on defense, balanced scoring, aggressive team rebounding and, perhaps most of all, a dearth in recent competition. A lack of Pac-12 contenders, and the sudden disappearance of bubble teams in other conferences, have put the Huskies into the NCAA tournament — no matter what happened in Westwood on Saturday.
Kudos to Romar and this year’s Huskies for doing what they had to do to claw their way back into the discussion. But the lack of competition in Pac-12 play has certainly helped UW rebuild its confidence … if not necessarily its resume.
Another common misconception is that the teams in the Pac-12 have improved immensely in recent weeks but have not been afforded the opportunity to prove it. That big chance actually came 21/2 weeks ago, when a UCLA team that finished in the top half of the conference standings — and beat the Pac-12 champs, mind you — faced a Big East also-ran and lost to St. John’s in a nationally-televised game.
Same ol’ Pac-12, they said all the way from Boise to the Bronx.
There’s a remote possibility that this Huskies team can win a game, maybe two, in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The team’s confidence is flying high, even if the depth might be lacking. The cream of the NCAA crop only goes about 15 deep this year, so UW might find itself with a favorable matchup or two when tourney play begins.
But don’t get caught up in the notion that Husky basketball has taken bigger steps than, say, power conference middle-of-the-packers like Cincinnati, Kansas State and Purdue. Winning 15 games in Pac-12 play would’ve been a foregone conclusion for those teams this year.
So give the Huskies credit for an impressive run. Just don’t mistake them for an undervalued, under-seeded, overlooked team when Selection Sunday comes around this weekend.
UW will get the bid it deserves. Then the Huskies will probably get a stark reminder of what it’s like to run with the big dogs.