By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Making history was an objective of the University of Washington men’s basketball team when it carried a Pacific-12 Conference regular-season championship into last week’s conference tournament.
One disappointing loss and an even more heartbreaking Selection Sunday later, the Huskies had to settle for being part of a more unsettling piece of history. UW (21-10) had quite a regular season but ended up becoming the first regular-season champion from one of the NCAA’s six primary conferences to not get invited to the Big Dance.
Not being among the NCAA tournament’s 68 teams was a hard pill for the Huskies to swallow.
“Our guys are very, very disappointed — very disappointed,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, whose Huskies will settle for hosting Texas-Arlington in the National Invitational Tournament on Tuesday at 7 p.m. “After winning the conference outright, I don’t think they can see any way we couldn’t be in this (NCAA) tournament — in their minds.”
In Romar’s own mind, Sunday’s announcement came as little surprise. He said the Huskies’ chances of making the field gradually dissipated before his very eyes after an 86-84 loss to Oregon State in the opening game of the Pac-12 tournament. After Colorado went on to win the conference tournament, and three or four other lower seeds in other tournaments also pulled upsets on the way to titles — the latest came earlier Sunday, when St. Bonaventure beat Xavier in the Atlantic-10 championship — Romar sat down Sunday afternoon with “one little bit of one percent of hope that maybe they do call your name” as he watched the selection show.
When it didn’t happen for UW, he was admittedly disappointed but not surprised.
“When things start happening, like Cal losing and St. Louis losing (in the Atlantic-10 semifinals) and other teams that weren’t in (the NCAA tournament) at first seemed like they were going to be in, then any hope started to go downhill,” Romar said after Sunday’s selection show.
Despite what anyone may think about UW getting snubbed or teams with inferior resumes getting into the 68-team field, Romar himself best summed up the Huskies’ fate when he said: “We had our chances.”
Romar was quick to point toward non-conference losses to South Dakota State, Nevada, St. Louis, 11th-ranked Marquette and seventh-ranked Duke as missed opportunities. Had any one of those games been reversed, he said, UW may well have been going to the Big Dance. The most recent blow to the Huskies’ resume came in last week’s loss to Oregon State.
While acknowledging that he understood the process, Romar still found it hard to believe that UW wasn’t one of the best 68 teams in the country.
“Are we the 69th best team in the country, or the 70th? No way in the world,” he said, later adding that he was surprised to see Iona earn an at-large bid. “But the numbers didn’t bear that to the selection committee.
“Usually it is worth something, winning the conference. … Our conference was just not ranked that high this year, based on the numbers, and that’s why we suffered.”
The Pac-12 got two teams into the field, but there’s a chance only conference tournament champion Colorado will be alive when play in the traditional 64-team bracket starts Thursday. Cal, which finished behind UW in the conference standings but beat the Huskies in the lone head-to-head matchup, has to beat South Florida in a Tuesday night play-in game just to get a shot at No. 5 seed Temple later this week.
The struggles of the Pac-12 had a lot to do with UW ending its three-year run as an NCAA tournament participant, but in the end the Huskies had no one to blame but themselves. Last Wednesday’s loss to No. 9 seed Oregon State in the opening round of the conference tournament was the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
“When we lost to Oregon State, I got real concerned — really concerned,” Romar said. “But as the (Pac-12) tournament went on, when Cal lost, I got more concerned.”
Twelve conferences, including the Missouri Valley, WCC, Colonial, Mountain West, Atlantic-10, Metro Atlantic and Conference USA, matched or exceeded the Pac-12’s total of two teams in the tournament. The Big East got eight teams into the dance, while the Big 12 and Big Ten each added six.
UW’s quest for an at-large bid went up against teams like Iona, Colorado State, Xavier, Alabama and Texas that eventually got in. When all was said and done, 11 at-large bids went to teams outside of the so-called “power six” conferences of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Southeast Conference and the Pac-12.
Now the Huskies will have to get refocused for a Tuesday meeting with Texas-Arlington (24-8) in the program’s first NIT appearance since 1997.
“It’s another challenge,” Romar said before learning of his upcoming opponent. “We have a chance to win a championship. It’s not what we wanted, it wasn’t our first choice, but we need to take hold and seize the moment and get ready to go.”