Now it is settled, the battle to be the second-best men’s college basketball team in the state. After the 72-68 win over Washington State Sunday at Hc Ed, Washington is 3-0 against the Cougars and Seattle U. If you don’t know who No. 1 is, well, it’s understandable. From here, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a mere dot on the far horizon. But check the Associated Press poll Monday morning, and the Zags will be better than anyone else in the country too.
The concerns of the Huskies and Cougars are more pedestrian and intimate than Gonzaga, the first school in the state’s major college basketball history to be ranked No. 1. The Huskies would like to finish the season strong and win a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament March 7-10 in Las Vegas. The Cougars would like to make sure sinkholes don’t open beneath their bedrooms.
The Cougs, per custom, started fast and faded late, losing their ninth in a row. Missing several players he penciled in as point guards after last season, Ken Bone’s team made what seemed like all of its 18 turnovers in the last seven minutes to help explain why the Cougs are 2-14 in conference.
The Huskies, meanwhile, flickered with a little hope, winning consecutive games for the first time since mid-January as the tri-guard set of Scott Suggs, C.J. Wilcox and Abdul Gaddy actually functioned well, together, at once, for perhaps for the first time this season.
After the upset over Arizona State in Tempe a week ago, the Huskies are coming in late and low. Like, tree-top level. But as the old saying goes about the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind . . . what the hell.
“None of (the UW players) have to have our best game of the year; we just have to go out and play at the level we are capable of playing,” said coach Lorenzo Romar. “If we are doing that on the same night, I think we can be really competitive with anyone.
“But we haven’t had that consistency this year.”
The Huskies have been erratic as a kitten on anti-depressants. But when Wilcox and Suggs each score 23 points, and Gaddy chips in nine points and six assists, and the entire team engages in defense for 10 minutes at a time, it is possible to envision a team that will annoy an opponent or two in the tourney.
Washington (8-8, 16-13) still has left two regular-season games at home, USC Wednesday and conference co-leader UCLA Saturday. A split would leave the Huskies 9-9 and either an eighth or ninth seed in the tourney, likely against fellow mediocrity Stanford (8-9, 16-13) in the first round. Certainly a winnable matchup (the Huskies won the only meeting, 65-60), but the winner of 8-9 draws the No. 1 seed for a game the next night.
Matters Dawgie would likely end there, except for an NIT berth. But if an upset were possible, it would have to look a lot like the last eight minutes against WSU, which to that point was hitting 65 percent from the field and leading 53-48. The Huskies jumped on the Cougars defensively and turned the offense over to the three guards, the most impressive of which was Suggs.
A game after hitting four of six 3s against ASU, he hit five of eight against the Cougs. The decisive one came with 4:05 left to break a tie at 57. Thereafter, the three guards did all the scoring as UW calmly pulled away, charming the purple partisans in a crowd of 8,508 purchased tickets, many of whose owners appeared likely to have stayed home doing yardwork on a nice day.
The breakthrough for Suggs apparently came after a heart-to-heart before the ASU game with Romar, who politely told him he better crank up the intensity.
“We talked about the type of mentality he has to have,” Romar said. “Sometimes we can go out on the floor and think, ‘If my shot is going, everything is good; if not, everything is not that good.’ So many other things go on during a basketball game that you can help with.
“I know that when I played pro ball, if I hadn’t played with passion, I wouldn’t have been there. I just think his approach was really good the last two performances.”
Romar is often mystified why some players wait until late in the season, or even after the season, to do what it takes for success. But with two games left before the tourney, the whys are irrelevant. The only goal is to sustain.
After a 4-0 conference start, followed by a magnum plummet, the Huskies are back to 8-8 and on an uptick.
“After the 4-0 start this isn’t where we thought we would be,” said Wilcox. “We dropped the ball on some games that we should have won. So that kind of sets us back. We’re trying to get hot at the right time. We want to take these last few games and get in a rhythm and take it as far as we can.”
Beating WSU at home is no one’s definition of hot, but lukewarm is better than things were a month ago. It isn’t the Huskies’ year — they only rent space in the world of the Zags — but a sweep this week might do much to revise the odds in Vegas.
The Cougs, meanwhile, sleep with one eye open.