SEATTLE — When the members of the University of Washington men’s basketball team woke up Sunday morning, they were ecstatic, and somewhat relieved, to still be in the race for a Pacific-12 Conference regular-season title. A few hours later, the Huskies found themselves sitting in the driver’s seat.
Thanks to California’s loss at Colorado on Sunday afternoon, UW is now in control of its own fate.
“It’s on us,” freshman Tony Wroten Jr. said Tuesday. “We create our own destiny right now. Do we want to take the Pac-12 season ourselves, tie or lose it? We’re fortunate enough to where we can determine that. It’s about how much we want it.”
Cal’s loss, combined with a UW win over rival Washington State a day earlier, means the Huskies can fall back on coach Lorenzo Romar’s mantra heading into the final week of regular-season play.
“I think we’ve approached it the right way, from a ways back: Keep getting better, do what we do, control what we can control,” he said Tuesday, as the Huskies (20-8 overall, 13-3 in the Pac-12) prepared for a trip to Los Angeles to face USC on Thursday and UCLA on Saturday. “And nothing has changed now.”
For a while there, it looked like the road to a Pac-12 title — it would be just the school’s second outright regular-season title since 1953 — might be out of UW’s collective grasp. A tough non-conference schedule that included a 4-4 record on Dec. 10 had the Huskies’ postseason hopes teetering, and a home loss to Cal on Jan. 19 knocked UW out of first place for most of the past five weeks.
But then came Cal’s loss Sunday, and suddenly the Huskies were back in control heading into the final week of play.
“It was a good feeling because that put us back in the No. 1 spot by ourselves,” senior Darnell Gant said. “That’s a great feeling, and it gives us more incentive to go out on the road and try and get two.”
Romar maintains that he’s never lost faith in this team, even though it was at times left for dead by the fans and media. He knew the potential was there, even though the team lost star guard Isaiah Thomas to early draft entry and didn’t have a single returning player who averaged as many as nine points per game last season.
“We just hadn’t done it night in and night out,” Romar said. “I knew that’s what we had, in terms of potential, and that if and when it meshed and jelled, we were capable of doing what we’ve been able to do. It just took a while for it to jell.”
While some have called this season one of Romar’s best coaching performances, he continually deflected credit to the players on Tuesday.
“This team has had to overcome some obstacles that I don’t think a lot of people realize,” he said. “And I’ve got to give them a lot of credit. That’s up to this point — we could go blow it this weekend. But I give them a lot of credit because they didn’t feel sorry for themselves.”
Part of what has made this team unique is its evolution from a young group finding its way to the Pac-12 contender that enters its final week with a chance to make history. Romar couldn’t compare the unit to his only other outright regular-season champion, the experience-driven 2008-09 team led by seniors Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon and junior Quincy Pondexter.
That team clinched an outright title by beating rival Washington State in the regular-season finale, and this week Romar called that the biggest win of his 10-year tenure as head coach.
“It was a great, great feeling,” he said Tuesday.
The Huskies have a chance to give Romar his second regular-season title — one win this week clinches at least a tie, while wins over both the Trojans and Bruins would clinch an outright title before Cal even plays its next game, Sunday at Stanford — this week. He gives most of the credit to his players but isn’t afraid to sprinkle a little praise on Colorado for beating the Bears on Sunday.
“You see the outcome of that game, and you catch a break,” Romar said. “That isn’t what we were looking for, but we were able to catch a break.
“We’ve been on the other side, where we didn’t catch a break, and this time we did. Now we have to take advantage of it.”
Romar said that an X-ray on sophomore C.J. Wilcox’s left leg last week revealed that the stress fracture in his femur was beginning to show signs of significant progress. “C.J. has definitely improved,” Romar said Tuesday, adding that the Huskies’ third-leading scorer would continue to be limited in practice. “He’s definitely become healthier. He’s at a point now where, when we play in the Pac-12 tournament (next weekend), he can play three games in a row.” … The Huskies have two legitimate candidates for Pac-12 Player of the Year in Wroten and sophomore Terrence Ross. Romar said both players are deserving but added that he couldn’t name either as a favorite because they both have carried UW at different times this season. “If we’re fortunate enough to come out on top” of the league standings,” Romar said, “you’ve got to give those guys high, high consideration.” … Gant, who has started in place of freshman Desmond Simmons in each of the past two games, will remain in that role, Romar said Tuesday.