By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
For a group that traveled almost 3,000 miles and has spent nearly a week living in a hotel, the University of Washington men’s basketball team is in familiar territory this week.
The Huskies (4-3) have a chance to help dictate their season when they face the seventh-ranked Duke Blue Devils this morning at Madison Square Garden. A win would put UW on the national map and heighten the Huskies’ chances of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. A loss would leave Washington’s fate in the hands of a lukewarm Pac-12 schedule, and probably in need of a regular-season or conference tournament title to get into The Dance.
It’s a place UW has been before, and one that has left the Huskies behind the proverbial eight-ball.
“All these games that we’re playing now certainly take you a long ways,” head coach Lorenzo Romar said during a Friday conference call. “Anytime you go toe-to-toe with Duke and be successful, you’re going to get someone’s attention. I think that’s part of the big picture with this game. But for us, the No. 1 thing is to be the best team we can be.”
While each of the past two UW seasons have been defined by NCAA tournament-clinching runs through the Pac-10 tourney, the Huskies put themselves in that state of desperation by failing to register a quality win in non-conference play. With Tuesday’s loss to No. 11 Marquette, the Huskies have lost 10 consecutive regular-season games against ranked, non-conference opponents. It’s a streak that dates back to December 2006, when UW knocked off No. 15 LSU.
“We definitely don’t plan in preseason: OK, we’ll blow these games in the beginning so that we’ll do well at the end,” Romar said with a chuckle. “That’s not quite how we’ve drawn it up, but it’s kind of worked out that way.”
He was quick to add that this year’s Huskies haven’t exactly flopped in non-conference play, as evidenced by Tuesday’s two-point loss to 11th-ranked Marquette and an overtime loss at Nevada before that.
But UW’s inability to win road games and non-conference battles with big-time opponents has brought back memories of recent struggles.
The Huskies were an NCAA bubble team in each of the past two seasons, due in large part to the lack of a quality win in the non-conference schedule. Even finishing at or near the top of the standings in what used to be the Pac-10 Conference wasn’t enough to put UW into the field because the conference has struggled in recent years — and is struggling again this season. That left the Huskies needing Pac-10 tournament titles to guarantee a spot in The Dance.
The same thing could happen this year if UW doesn’t shock Duke (8-1) this morning. With remaining non-conference games coming against UC Santa Barbara, South Dakota State and Cal State Northridge — all at home — today marks UW’s final chance to catch the eye of the tournament committee before conference play starts.
“There’s no doubt it’s a big game,” Romar said. “In terms of a profile game, it’s a big game — no doubt. We’re facing one of the top programs in the history of college basketball, and they’re very good (this season), and you have a Hall-of-Fame coach leading the team, you’re playing at Madison Square Garden.
“So the profile of the game, it’s definitely a big game. In terms of a big game for our season, this one is big but Marquette was big too. And next week Santa Barbara will be big too. I know I’ve said that before. We can’t treat this game like it’s a bigger game. Hopefully we can play at the same level every time.”