By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Must-win has been a way of life for the University of Washington men’s basketball team in recent Februarys.
So why should this campaign be any different?
As the Huskies (17-8 overall, 10-3 in the Pacific-12 Conference) prepare for their final homestand of the 2011-12 season, they know that a loss, especially one at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, could be devastating.
“If we’re talking about getting to the NCAA tournament and winning this conference, every game is crucial,” coach Lorenzo Romar said this week. “We have to be our best from here on out; we can’t have a setback. We can’t have a game like (the 25-point loss) we had at Oregon (last Thursday) from here on out.”
Recent history has shown that the Huskies are at their best this time of year. After Valentine’s Day, UW holds a 24-9 record during the past three seasons, with three of those losses coming in the NCAA tournament. Romar said he has seen signs of a similar breakthrough in this year’s team, but the only thing he knows for certain is that his team can’t afford another defeat.
With an RPI ranking of 61st in the nation, the Huskies are on the outside looking in when it comes to an NCAA at-large bid. UW also is in desperate need of victories when it comes to the race for the top spot in the Pac-12. Right now, Cal and the Huskies are tied for first place.
“It’s real, real, real critical,” freshman guard Tony Wroten Jr. said of this week’s homestand, which begins tonight with a game against struggling Arizona State (8-17, 4-9). “We’re tied for first right now with Cal, and we can’t afford anymore losses. We want to win the Pac-12 championship, so it’s real crucial.”
With three road games to close UW’s regular-season schedule, the Huskies will try to hold serve with a pair of home games this week. Saturday opponent Arizona knows how important it is to win games at home, as the Wildcats’ loss to UW in Tucson three weeks ago is what currently separates them from being tied for first place.
“It’s very important that all of us defend our homecourt,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said earlier this week, “and obviously we take pride in playing here at home. But Washington just played with a lot of poise.”
Poise has not been a word commonly associated with UW’s play away from Hec Ed. Romar knows that he can’t carry any expectations into road games, so he’s all but calling this week’s home games must-wins.
The Huskies know how important it is to pull off one last home sweep before going back on the road.
“We definitely can’t lose at home, especially with how close our conference is this year,” sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox said. “We have to take care of these ones and hopefully get it done on the road.”
“We’re definitely trying to get these next two games, then go on the road 3-0 as well,” freshman forward Desmond Simmons said. “These are all must-wins. We control, from here on out, what happens. It all depends on us.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the Huskies have won more than a few win-or-don’t-dance games in recent years.
“It seems like we’re in this situation every year, so we should know what to do,” Romar said. “We just have to constantly remind our guys how important the next practice is, how important the next drill is.
“One little setback could possibly keep us from reaching our goals at this point. We just have to keep working hard.”
Wroten is one of five finalists for the Wayman Tisdale Award, which is given to the nation’s top freshman. The other candidates are Cody Zeller (Indiana), Austin Rivers (Duke), Anthony Davis (Kentucky) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky). Wroten, the Pac-12’s third-leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, has a higher scoring average than any of them but is the only candidate who’s not on a ranked team. Kentucky’s Davis, who is on pace to set all kinds of shot-blocking records, has generated buzz as a possible candidate for the All-America first team and could be in the discussion for national player of the year. … The UW athletic department announced Wednesday that the Huskies will be one of eight teams competing in the Hall of Fame Classic in Springfield, Mass., in November. Washington joins Ohio State, Loyola (Md.), Norfolk State, Seton Hall, Albany, Rhode Island and Missouri-Kansas City in the tournament, which will be played Nov. 16-18.