By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — This whole revised schedule that comes with an expanded conference is really working out for the University of Washington men’s basketball team.
The new Pacific-12 Conference, which added two teams and created a somewhat unbalanced schedule, may well give the Huskies an advantage as they head into their most important week of the season. Conference co-leaders California (15-4 overall, 5-1 in the Pac-12) and Stanford (15-3, 5-1) are in town for a pair of games against UW, which won’t have to make a return trip to the Bay Area later in the season.
So what does UW coach Lorenzo Romar think of the new schedule?
“This year, I really like it, given that they’re probably playing the best basketball,” he said. “Two of the best teams in the league (playing in Seattle but not hosting UW)? Yeah, I kind of like that idea this year.”
The rare two-and-done homestand only accents the need for the Huskies (11-6, 4-1) to put their best feet forward this week. UW has a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 come Saturday evening, and it’s a possibility that seemed highly unlikely when conference play began.
After scraping out wins over mostly lower-division teams like Utah, Oregon State and Washington State, the Huskies are in position to make a big statement, beginning with tonight’s home game against Cal.
“Cal’s a really good team,” junior point guard Abdul Gaddy said, “and we need to really be focused and dialed in for this one.”
While both of this week’s games have elements of the must-win variety, Gaddy and his head coach are being typically understated about the importance of the next three days. Romar busted out a familiar refrain about how every conference game carries unique weight, pointing out that losing to a last-place team would be devastating in its own way.
Gaddy pulled out a cliche of his own when saying: “The next game’s always your biggest game, really.”
But just a quick glance at the Pac-12 standings, albeit at this infantile stage of the conference season, shows that games tonight and Saturday carry a bit more weight in the big picture.
Cal and Stanford probably had the best non-conference seasons among Pac-12 teams — granted, that’s a bit like being the most attractive cockroach — and continue to look like the teams to beat. UW has struggled for much of the season but still has a serviceable 11-6 overall record and sparkling 4-1 conference mark to help people forget about the Huskies’ low (86) Rating Percentage Index ranking.
RPI measures teams’ strength of schedule and factors in how they fare in that schedule. It was created in 1981 and is used by the NCAA in selecting and seeding teams for its Division I postseason men’s and women’s tournaments.
If the Huskies can score a pair of wins over Cal (No. 37 RPI) and Stanford (No. 67), they not only would ascend to the top of the conference, but they also might find themselves back on the national map.
Not that it will be easy.
Tonight’s game against Cal brings a team that boasts the Pac-12’s top backcourt. Fifth-year senior Jorge Gutierrez and super-soph Allen Crabbe lead a Golden Bears team that was favored to win the conference and has thus far lived up to expectations.
Romar called Cal “the most efficient team in our conference” and added: “Their starting five, there isn’t a player in there that can’t go out and make a play.”
It should mark the Huskies’ toughest challenge since facing Duke at Madison Square Garden in December.
UW will have to play short-handed, with sophomore C.J. Wilcox and his 15.5 points per game likely to be sidelined by a stress fracture in his left leg for the second game in a row. In Wilcox’s absence, 6-foot-6 wing Terrence Ross broke out for a career-high 30 points against Washington State over the weekend.