With a regular-season title and back-to-back conference tournament championships, the University of Washington men’s basketball team would appear to be the heavy favorite heading into the Pacific-12 Conference tournament that begins today in Los Angeles.
And yet the Huskies aren’t the favorites. Really, there isn’t a favorite at all.
For all the criticism the Pac-12 has taken this year, the league has the kind of balance and parity that could make for some exciting games this week — and unpredictable results.
“Every now and then, somebody gets hot — and you don’t know who that is,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed and will face the winner of today’s Oregon State-Washington State game at 12:10 p.m. Thursday.
“… Good luck in picking the winner of this one; that’s what I say.”
Romar would like to see his Huskies, the Pac-12 regular-season champion, win the league tourney and get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. But even if Washington doesn’t win the Pac-12 event, it still might get an NCAA at-large bid.
Several Pac-12 teams — most notably Stanford, UCLA and Colorado — have a realistic shot of putting on Cinderella’s slipper and running through the tournament to earn the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
In a conference tournament that has proven to be rather unpredictable over the years, this week’s bracket appears to be as open as ever.
“I feel, personally, every team’s playing better than they were playing at the start of the season, including ourselves,” UW sophomore Terrence Ross said Tuesday. “I feel like if we don’t bring it, any other team could easily run through this tournament.”
Oregon and Arizona appear to have the most to lose. Both teams could conceivably play their ways out of NCAA tournament consideration with an opening-game loss. The Ducks and Wildcats have motivation, and more than enough talent, to make deep runs.
UW and Cal finished 1-2 in the Pac-12 regular season and appear likely to be in the NCAA tournament mix no matter what happens this week. But to call them the favorites would be a bit misleading, seeing as how both teams ended the regular season with momentum-killing road losses.
Stanford, Colorado and UCLA have the appearance of giant killers, while Washington State has the conference’s most consistent scorer (Brock Motum) and Oregon State its most complete player (Jared Cunningham). The Cougars and Beavers square off today.
So, penciling in a likely winner is a shaky proposition. Not even the Huskies feel like favorites — despite their regular season and recent run of success in Pac-10 tourneys.
“On paper, in terms of wins and losses, we are the No. 1 seed,” Romar said. “Beyond that, you’ve got to go play the games. It doesn’t mean anything.”
UW freshman Tony Wroten Jr. was the only Husky who wore the “favorite” tag with pride Tuesday.
“We definitely do (feel like the team to beat), especially after last year and the year before, being champions, and winning the regular season championship this year,” he said. “There’s definitely a target on our back. It’s win-or-go-home now, so everybody’s going to play like it’s their last game.”
The Huskies are one of several teams who won’t be playing their final game this week, no matter when their tourney run ends. An NCAA bid is likely still out there, while the National Invitational Tournament would undoubtedly jump on UW if the Huskies get snubbed by the NCAA.
But that doesn’t mean UW is heading into the Pac-12 tournament with nothing to lose. While every other power-conference top seed knows it’s going to the Big Dance regardless of what happens this week, the Huskies are still hoping to get themselves off the proverbial bubble.
“I’m thinking we need to win a couple games, but you never know,” sophomore C.J. Wilcox said. “So we’re just going to try and win all our games and play it safe.”
The Huskies are capable of doing just that, as their 14-4 conference record and recent history in postseason tournaments has shown. But when it comes to being the favorite, that’s not necessarily a tag that UW can take to the bank.
“We’re glad we’re the No. 1 seed, but every game is just as important as another one,” Wilcox said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, it’s going to be a tough game. Any team can beat any team in this tournament, so I don’t think the No. 1 seed is that big a deal.”