SEATTLE — Tenth place. Washington was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason basketball poll.
As the Huskies head into February, they’re arguably the biggest surprise in the conference and one of the more intriguing college basketball teams in America. First-year coach and longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins has guided a team that went 9-22 last season to a 15-6 overall mark and a 5-3 record in Pac-12 play.
UW’s performances have led to a few questions, including the one that’s generated the most interest: Are the Washington Huskies going to reach the NCAA Tournament?
“It’s (a conversation) not worth having,” Huskies junior forward Noah Dickerson said about the team’s tournament hopes. “We gotta take it one game at a time.”
Dickerson might not want to discuss it, but there’s enough in place to suggest it’s a topic worth some consideration.
Several publications and websites have already started projecting what the NCAA Tournament field could look like.
ESPN, as of its latest Jan. 25 Bracketology projection, has the Huskies in the “First Four Out” category with Boise State, Maryland and Western Kentucky.
CBS Sports projects UW will grab the No. 11 seed in the East and will face Louisville in the first round.
SB Nation has the Huskies in the tourney but barely. It lists UW as getting one of the “Last Four Byes” which is a step above the “Last Four In,” and would likely mean the Huskies would avoid having to play in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio.
Essentially, the Huskies are a bubble team going into February.
UW has a few things going in its favor starting with its Ratings Percentage Index. The RPI, as its more commonly known, is a metric the NCAA Selection Committee uses to evaluate teams.
ESPN has the Huskies at 49, NCAA.com lists them 50th while RealTimeRPI.com also states they’re 50th.
There’s also the matter of what UW has done against the more talented teams it has played this season.
Using ESPN’s Bracketology as a parameter, Washington has three wins over teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament — Belmont, Kansas and USC.
It’s a good start but what hurts the Huskies is the overall play of the Pac-12 this season.
The conference is currently projected to receive only three berths, but that could rise to four depending upon what happens with UW, and the next two games are going to be critical in evaluating the Huskies’ tournament chances.
UW hosts Arizona State on Thursday before taking on Arizona in what will be longtime coach Lorenzo Romar’s return Saturday.
ESPN views ASU as a No. 7 seed while Arizona, where Romar is in his first season an assistant to Wildcats head coach Sean Miller, is projected as a fourth seed.
If UW can take at least one of those games, it would make four wins over potential tournament teams. Say the Huskies beat both the Sun Devils and Wildcats, that’s five quality wins and a really strong resume.
The Huskies have 10 regular season games left and six of them are at Alaska Airlines Arena.
UW, after this week, plays at Oregon and Oregon State before hosting Colorado and Utah. UW then heads to the Bay Area to face Stanford and California before wrapping up the regular season schedule against Oregon State and Oregon in Seattle.
Should UW win seven of its next 10, it would give the Huskies a 21-9 record going into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
If the Huskies can get at least one conference tournament win, that makes them a 22-win team out of a Power 5 conference, and last year’s NCAA tournament field had 11 Power 5 teams with more than 10 defeats.
“Our main focus with this team is getting our system in place and right,” Hopkins said. “It’s a proven system. It’s one of the most consistent winning systems in the history of college basketball. It’s been proven by the great James Arthur Boeheim.
“You just gotta keep moving, working, getting better and believing.”