By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
After spending a good part of this season winning close decisions, the University of Washington men’s basketball team has a chance to deliver a knockout blow tonight.
The Huskies, who are alone atop the Pacific-12 Conference standings, can all but eliminate one of their closest competitors with a win in Eugene, Ore. The Oregon Ducks (16-7 overall, 7-4 in the Pac-12) are one of four teams within two games of UW, and the Huskies could send them to the canvas with a road win tonight.
“If we beat Oregon, we could really be in the driver’s seat,” UW senior Darnell Gant said.
If it sounds like the Huskies (16-7, 9-2) might be getting full of themselves, well, nothing could be further from the truth. Coach Lorenzo Romar this week said he still feels like UW is a long way from the top.
“You’re 9-2, you’re a full game ahead with seven games left, you should feel like you’re in the driver’s seat,” Romar said Tuesday. “I don’t feel like that — at all.
“Maybe it’s because we’ve been digging ourselves out of a hole all year long, I feel like we’re trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. We’re not at this point, but I still feel like we have a tough stretch here. We could look up in two weeks and — literally — be in fifth place.”
In addition to being the only Pac-12 team that controls its own destiny, UW owns one of the best 11-game conference records in program history. Just four times have the Huskies won at least nine of their first 11 games in the Pac-10/Pac-12, and this season marks the first time it has happened since 2004-05.
Romar said that’s where the comparisons between this team and the 2004-05 unit led by Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy and Will Conroy end.
“That team didn’t feel like it could lose any game,” Romar said. “It was a well-oiled machine at this point (in the season). We had hit a stride by then.
“This team has not hit a stride. In spite of us winning five in a row, we have not hit a stride yet. Hopefully we can.”
Having been humbled by a rough start in non-conference play, this year’s Huskies aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
“We approach it like we’re underdogs,” freshman guard Tony Wroten Jr. said. “We don’t walk around thinking we’re the team to beat. At practice every day, we get after it. It’s in the back of our minds that we’re in first place, but the way we practice is like we’re still hungry.”
The Huskies were in a similar position late last January before losing at Washington State and then getting swept by the Oregon schools on their visit to the Willamette Valley. UW went from 7-1 in the conference to 7-4 in the blink of an eye, and the Huskies had to rally and win the Pac-10 Conference tournament title to assure their place in the NCAA tournament.
Even a pair of wins this week — UW plays at Oregon State on Sunday — wouldn’t necessarily lock up a ticket to the Big Dance, but the Huskies know how important these two games could end up being.
“Real big,” Wroten said. “We’re in first place, but (the Ducks) are right behind us. To get this win would be huge. It would mean that we (continue to) control our own destiny.”