Unshakable is the belief among many of my professional brethren in the East, Midwest and South that big-time college sports in the West are all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
Basketball players out here don’t have biceps. They have marshmallows. They don’t have attitude, they have perspective. They think gravel is for roads, not breakfast.
Hell, they probably even go to class.
A longtime pal, John Feinstein of the Washington Post, wrote about the Thursday matchup between Marquette and Washington in San Jose in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Marquette is a member of the Big East Conference, whose players long have had the reputation as the stevedores of hoops — bruisers thick of forearm and hard of heart. Washington is a member of the Pac-10 Conference, where players often know which fork to use.
Summarizing the clash of styles, Feinstein forecast that Washington would lose, in part by dint of the company it keeps. He said if Washington played in the 16-team Big East, the Huskies would finish 10th.
The tourney selection committee more or less agreed.
Marquette (22-11) finished fourth in the Big East. They were accorded a sixth seed. Washington was 24-9 and the Pac-10’s postseason tourney champion, yet was designated an 11th seed, owing largely to the belief that the Pac-10, especially this year, was more of a sorority pillow fight than waterfront brawl.
There is no doubt that the conference had one of its worst collective seasons, with no one in the Pacific time zone making much of an argument that any other member besides the teams that made it, UW and Cal, deserved entry to the 65-team field. Much of the falloff was due to the proliferation of one-and-done freshman players who moved on to the NBA, which does suggest that there may be some talent here.
In each of the past three seasons, the Pac-10 had six teams qualify for the pumpkin festival. Over the past 15 years, the Pac-10 has had the occasional national champion (UCLA, Arizona) and numerous appearances in the round of 16 or better.
No, it’s not the ACC. But neither is it a collection of throw-downs between Beavis and Butthead.
The fact that conference reputations play a part in the pre-tourney judgments tends to chap the backside parts of Quincy Pondexter, the Huskies’ lone senior who has borne the longest witness to the geographic indignity.
“I can’t stand it,” he said before practice Tuesday, then felt compelled to emphasize: “I can’t stand it.”
Pondexter recalled the issue came up last season, when Washington’s first-round opponent was also judged likely to impose its will on the Western wimpsters.
“That same criticism came last year when we played Mississippi State,” he said. “The experts thought that (because) Mississippi State came from the SEC, they were going to beat us up.
It was a little bit the other way around. You play with those guys, and you realize we’re pretty tough too.”
Washington won that game, and fairly persuasively. Of course, the Huskies had at the time Jon Brockman, whom many Right Coasters would have said belonged in the Big East, where he would have fit in nicely among the other youngsters who regularly snap railroad ties over their knees.
Upon the departure of Brockman and another senior tough guy, guard Justin Dentmon, the Huskies were wide open to the speculation that they would revert to their more natural state of watching PBS and listening to NPR.
For a good chunk of the season, the image was more right than wrong. The Huskies approached games on the road as if they were in a canoe about to go over Victoria Falls. Somewhere about mid-February, however, they figured things out, starting to share the ball on offense and bare the teeth on defense.
They won their last seven games in a row, including three in the Pac-10 tourney. Not only are they that rare team that is coming close to playing to its potential — take a late bow, coach Lorenzo Romar — they have drawn unexpected courtesy from the committee, which slotted their first game in Pac-10 country, 90 minutes away by plane.
That contrasts with the fate of the state’s other representative, Gonzaga, which for its opener was cast away to Buffalo, a place believed to be near the edge of the Earth.
The combination of fortune and late prowess is not entirely lost upon the Eastern cognoscenti. Ryan Fagan of The Sporting News listed 10 double-digit seeds with high potential to be tourney bracket busters. Washington is No. 2, trailing UTEP, a 12th seed in the West Regional, which had won 16 in a row until a loss in its tourney-title game.
Still, such acknowledgments are rare. A reputation is sometimes hard to shake. The Huskies are in the position of having to prove the same point over and over. They have an opportunity to do to a Big East opponent Thursday what they did to an SEC opponent a year ago:
Split some lips, lump some skulls and make claim that Marquette would finish seventh in the Pac-10, offering the scoreboard as arbiter.