The Washington Huskies had such a hard fall in their last two games in Los Angeles, I’m wondering if the Pac-12 Conference will check to see if former Saints assistant coach Gregg (“Bounty Hunter”) Williams was in town with an envelope full of $100 bills.
After the regular-season champs lost the regular-season finale at UCLA, then lost to ninth-seeded Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, it looked like someone put a hit on a team that won 16 of its previous 19 games. They were knocked back to old habits — defensive neglect, poor ball movement, fleeting concentration.
In fact, there was no external foul play, nor misdeed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Huskies were left out of the 68-team field purely because they failed too often, despite being regular-season league champions — the first denial of a champion from one of the “power six” conferences in modern tourney history.
While the Pac-12 feebleness this season played a part, it wasn’t the decisive factor, and coach Lorenzo Romar knew it.
“All we needed to do was win any one of the 10 games we lost, and we’re in,” he said Sunday on a teleconference. “Pick any one of those losses and and we’re looking for tape (to scout the NCAA tourney opponent). Our guys are very disappointed. Very disappointed.
“I thought we had righted the ship, then came the last two games.”
The Huskies accepted a bid to host a first-round game in the 32-team National Invitation Tournament at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Texas-Arlington (15-1 in the Southland Conference, 24-8 overall), televised on ESPNU. But that’s a consolation prize equivalent to Charlie Brown’s lump of coal. The NIT is a glorified set of practices for next season, even if the championship final four is in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Apart from RPI, the easiest way to look at what happened is that Washington lost to, in order, Saint Louis, Marquette, Duke, South Dakota State, Colorado and Cal. They are all in the tourney field. The Huskies beat no one in the tourney field.
Nevertheless, Romar was having a hard time with it.
“Are we the 69th-best team? No way in the world. We’re better than that,” Romar said. “Usually winning the conference is worth something.”
Not this time. Not this season. So lame was the conference that a big-time win was not possible because there were no big-time teams. The mere fact that Colorado, refugee from the Big 12 and a basketball power up there with the Saskatoon TaterTots could, in its rookie season in the Pac-12, win four games in four nights to claim the automatic bid, told the selection committee all it needed to know.
Cal was the league’s only other entry, and that is in a play-in game that didn’t exist two years ago. It was pretty much a courtesy gesture. And again, the Bears and Buffs beat Washington.
Romar said the thing the most bugged him about the way Washington played its way out of the NCAAs was the first half of the league tourney opener against Oregon State, in which they trailed 46-33 at the half.
“It was just how we came out in the first half,” he said. “If we could get by the first (game), I know we’d be ready to go against Arizona. But we didn’t play any defense.”
They did in the second half — until Aziz N’Diaye fouled out inside four minutes. UW was ahead 77-71 when that happened. They lost 86-84, mostly because the Beavers felt free to go inside for buckets and free throws. That’s how thin the margin was between success and failure — a fifth foul.
Romar said all season that their seven-foot center was the Huskies’ most irreplaceable player. In the crucible, they proved him right. The Huskies never found a way to compensate for the big fella’s frequent foul trouble. Critics of Tony Wroten like to point out his tendency to go all Dominique Wilkins, but his mistakes pale compared to the lack of frontline depth that Washington needed to be a tournament team.
Then there was the issue of maturity with such a young roster. The early season nonconference losses were excusable given the number of new players. Romar had to see what he had. But after roles and patterns were established, defense took a priority and the wins came in bunches. The reversion was an appalling development.
The OSU defeat did not come at the free throw line; all kids choke at one time or another. The loss came because the Huskies weren’t mature enough to take the game seriously. Romar knew it.
Referring to his repeated apprehensions about making the field after the loss, Romar said, “I’ve be been accused of being a pessimist more in last three days than I have in 10 years here.” He knew the drill — they had blown it.
The three days of helplessness until the announcement compounded the anxiety but didn’t mask the truth, as did the soft competition in the Pac-12: The Huskies weren’t big-timers.