Hey, it’s not last place.
But the Washington men’s basketball team is riding a season-high, five-game losing streak and playing their toughest opponent of the season Friday night against No. 7 Arizona (20-3, 8-2 Pac-12) at Alaska Airlines Arena (6 p.m., ESPN).
At 14-9, (3-8 Pac-12), the Huskies entered Thursday 11th in the conference — ahead of only pitiful USC (9-15, 1-11 Pac-12) — after an 11-0 start had them ranked as high as No. 13 in the country before a Dec. 28 loss to Stony Brook.
With seven games left in the regular season, UW’s chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament are minuscule. The Huskies have a 74 RPI. ESPN’s latest bracketology projection has four Pac-12 teams (Arizona, Utah, Stanford and UCLA) in the Big Dance.
“We don’t have another 10 games,” Romar said. “(If) we’re talking about getting an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, we have to make our move. There’s not a whole lot of margin for error in that regard.
“Fortunately for us, the game in front of us is as big as anyone — against the No. 7-ranked team in the country. And it’s not a fluke. They’re good. So the timing of it in terms of urgency is right here.”
Criticism of Romar, now in his 13th season at Washington, is growing louder. The Huskies haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011. Aside from standout sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, they’re bereft of the kind of talent that Romar guided to three Sweet 16 trips before the recent downturn.
Romar said he understands the criticism. But he’s trying to urge his players, some of whom are hearing it for the first time in their playing careers, to concentrate efforts elsewhere.
“You’re going to hear a lot of people say you won’t win another game, you’re not going to be able to accomplish this or that,” Romar said. “You can’t concentrate on those things. A lot of the same people were saying this year (we) may go to the Final Four when (we were) 11-0.”
At seven feet, Arizona junior C Kaleb Tarczewski presents a matchup problem. That’s the way it’s going to be against every opponent the rest of the season. The Huskies were already short on front-court depth before Romar dismissed C Robert Upshaw, their leading shot blocker, for a violation of team rules Jan. 26. Without him, the Huskies are 0-4 and haven’t held an opponent to less than 50 percent shooting.
“We’re working on it,” Romar said of UW finding its new identity. “Hopefully our identity has to be one of grit. We’ve got to be a blue-collar team right now. We’ve got to regain our defensive identity. We’ve made a little progress there, but it’s not where it needs to be.”
Even with renewed energy, the Huskies will remain short-handed guarding the post. Since Upshaw’s departure, Romar has at times resorted to a five-guard lineup.
“I think we all do a really good job scrapping,” said Williams-Goss. “None of us are huge guards. We always give maximum effort but sometimes a big may score, but it won’t be because we’re not fighting and not battling.”
Senior forward Shawn Kemp Jr., at 6-foot-9, is UW’s tallest starter. Little-used junior seven-footer Gilles Dierickx hasn’t contributed since roster attrition helped him receive playing time.
The absence of Upshaw, recent departures of freshman forward Tristan Etienne (left program in October for personal reasons), Desmond Simmons (transferred to St. Mary’s) and midseason transfer of sophomore guard Jahmel Taylor means the Huskies have just eight healthy scholarship players.
Romar didn’t rule out the possibility of junior forward Jernard Jarreau (knee surgery) returning this weekend — UW hosts Arizona State Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks) — but said it’s more likely he’ll be back Feb. 22 when the Huskies face Washington State in Pullman. Jarreau hasn’t played since the Huskies opened their home conference schedule Jan. 10 with a loss to the Cougars, but he recently started participating in some drills at practice.
Jarreau would be a welcome boost for UW, which plays four of its final seven conference games at home.
So would a win.