By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Can they do it again?
The past two times the Washington Huskies ventured south to play a conference tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the UW men’s basketball team swept through the competition and hoisted a trophy on Saturday afternoon.
Three wins in three days have become commonplace for the Huskies. This time around, they’re trying to complete the unprecedented feat of three titles in three years.
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” fifth-year senior Darnell Gant said of the Huskies’ two-year run as Pacific-10 Conference champions. “But at the same time, I feel like the younger guys and the guys who are here now need to understand what it took to win those tournaments. It’s not as easy as it would seem. Three-games-in-three-days, anybody could say that. But it’s going to take a lot more.”
Not only are the Huskies now competing in the Pacific-12 Conference, but they’re also carrying a different tag into the tournament as the No. 1 seed. UW (21-9) is scheduled to open against Oregon State at 12:10 p.m.
The No. 9-seeded Beavers (18-13) knocked off Washington State in Wednesday’s first round and played the Huskies close in a 75-72 loss in Corvallis in the second meeting of UW’s regular-season sweep.
The Huskies know they’ll have their hands full today, and getting through the semifinals and title game will be no easy feat, either.
“It’s really hard to do,” sophomore C.J. Wilcox said of winning three games in three days. “It takes a lot of focus, guys sticking together, because a lot of things happen — especially with three games in three days. You just have to remember your principles and try to execute.”
Sophomore Terrence Ross was even more succinct in explaining what it takes to win three consecutive games this time of year.
“You have to be almost perfect,” he said.
Washington already holds the distinction of being the first program from the Pac-10/Pac-12 to win back-to-back conference titles under the current format. Remarkably, USC is the only other program to make it to consecutive championship games since the tournament came back from a 12-year hiatus in 2002 — from 1987 through 1991, the conference played a smaller postseason tourney at home sites, Although, the Trojans went to back-to-back title games in 2002 and 2003, they lost both times.
UW has won a conference-best three titles in the 10 tournaments under the current format, including the past two. Add in the No. 1 seed, and the Huskies would appear to be the team to beat this week.
Not that they see it that way.
“I’m definitely not saying: ‘Look out Pac-12, here we come,’” coach Lorenzo Romar said this week. “This is a tough, tough tournament. It’s going to be very difficult, starting with our first game.”
Making things even more challenging is the fact that this year’s Huskies will have to make a run without former star guard Isaiah Thomas, who was named MVP of the past two tournaments and now is playing for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
Another big reason for UW’s back-to-back runs was motivation. The past two years, the Huskies found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to the NCAA tournament and needed Pac-10 titles to secure automatic bids. This year’s Huskies appeared more safe this time last week, but a Saturday loss to UCLA has left some questions about UW’s NCAA resume.
“We need to win some games,” Romar said. “I don’t know if we’re a slam dunk for the (NCAA) tournament. That’s how we’ve felt the last two years.”
The Huskies might have enough on their tournament resume to get into the Big Dance regardless of what happens this week, but that doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels.
Another three-game run through the Pac-12 tourney would be just what the doctor ordered in terms of UW’s NCAA tournament standing, but that’s easier said than done.
The question now is: can they do it again?