By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — While it might not get any easier, it gets more fun as you go.
That’s how the University of Washington men’s basketball team is looking at the National Invitational Tournament, which started out as a consolation prize but is starting to feel like an opportunity for overdue celebration.
“In this tournament,” coach Lorenzo Romar said after the Huskies escaped Texas-Arlington in Tuesday night’s opener, “it gets a lot more fun each time.”
The Huskies (22-12) were admittedly still shaken up by their Selection Sunday disappointment Tuesday night when they opened NIT play with the too-close-for-comfort win over Texas-Arlington. Afterward, players spoke of the obvious disparity in NIT excitement heading into that game.
“This was like their NCAA tournament, and we saw that in how they play in the first half,” said Abdul Gaddy, the Huskies’ junior point guard.
With one game under its belt, UW is starting to feel more comfortable about the whole NIT experience and is hoping to make a deep run that ends at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Having missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years, the Huskies are looking at tonight’s NIT game against Northwestern as another chance to make a statement.
“We had to get over the fact that we’re not in the tournament, that it’s a different tournament,” Gaddy said. “I think we got it out (Tuesday night), and now we have to play a Northwestern team that’s tough. We have to make sure that we’re up for it because they’re a good team.
“We want to prove, to ourselves and to the tournament committee, that we should’ve been in the NCAA tournament. We’ve got a chip on our shoulders that we want to prove that.”
Senior Darnell Gant admitted that Tuesday’s NIT opener wasn’t the game the Huskies expected when March Madness began, but they’ve since taken a different approach to the so-called “other” tournament.
“Our guys have embraced the fact that we are in the NIT now,” Gant said after the 82-72 win on Tuesday night. “I feel like we all have the mindset to go on as far as we can now, see if we can win it. Whatever happened with the NCAA, it’s in the past now. We can’t change it, we can’t do anything about it, we can’t get in. So now we just have to make the most of our opportunities.”
What awaits the Huskies (22-10) tonight is a Northwestern team that has gone through similar emotional peaks and valleys over the past 10 days. The Wildcats (19-13) had a realistic chance of making the first NCAA tournament appearance in the program’s history with a win or two in last week’s Big Ten Conference tournament, only to bow out in an opening-game loss to Minnesota. Like UW’s loss to Oregon State in the Pacific-12 Conference opener, that game all but sealed Northwestern’s fate.
“Obviously, it was very difficult,” Northwestern’s John Shurna said of the loss to Minnesota. “Things didn’t go exactly how we planned, but we’re still playing basketball.”
The Wildcats, like UW, entered the NIT with a bit of a chip on their shoulder because of the NCAA near-miss. But Shurna said his team has gotten over the disappointment and embraced the opportunity that lies in from of it.
“Anytime you’re in a tournament, you want to go out and win it,” the Wildcats’ leading scorer said via telephone this week. “Obviously, everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But to still be able to play basketball in March, that’s a good thing. Once you’re on the court, the competitive fire takes over and all you think about is trying to win.”
Northwestern isn’t the only team heading to Hec Edmundson Pavilion tonight with refocused goals. The Huskies readily admit that embracing the NIT was a difficult task a few days ago, and yet now they’re all in.
“The initial shock of being in this is over,” Romar said Thursday morning. “… Time helps that.”
Romar said Terrence Ross has a hip flexor but that he didn’t expect the injury to affect him in tonight’s game. “I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Romar said. “… We’re anticipating him playing.” … Tony Wroten Jr. needs 16 points and four assists to set UW freshman records in both categories. … Romar compared Northwestern to South Dakota State in that the Wildcats have four outside shooters surrounding the 6-9 Shurna. UW fans might remember how that South Dakota State game went, with the Jackrabbits making eight of 11 3-pointers in the first half on the way to a 92-73 win at Hec Ed.