At 5:21 p.m. Saturday, as the Washington Huskies were running past New Mexico as if the Lobos were the folding chairs Norman Dale had placed on the floor during a Hickory High practice, a million NCAA tournament brackets were shredded.
Northern Iowa had shocked top-seeded, top-ranked and bound-for-glory Kansas. While the news had no immediate effect on the Huskies, it underscored the notion that an already wide-open tournament is up for grabs. If mighty Kansas can fall to Northern Iowa, nothing is firm and nobody is safe.
By tonight, 16 teams will be making plans to advance to the regional semifinals, and Washington is playing as well as any of the 16. The beauty isn’t merely that the Huskies can win this thing. It’s that they don’t need to clasp their hands together and pray for celestial intervention.
West Virginia or Missouri in the third round? Doesn’t matter. Kentucky down the road? No sweat.
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If Quincy Pondexter continues to resemble a tournament MVP candidate during the last-hurrah phase of his college career, if Isaiah Thomas continues to preside as the mayor of Jack City, if Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning continue their startling metamorphosis into big-timers, if Elston Turner continues to look like the least stressed-out student since Ferris Bueller, if Venoy Overton continues to shake, rattle and roil opponents dribbling around the perimeter, Washington is going to continue its clinic-crisp run toward the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Along the way, some observers will dwell on the Huskies’ modest No. 11 seeding in the East. Can we all agree that the seedings were a joke?
I mean, New Mexico at No. 3. Hello? The Lobos finished the regular season ranked eighth in the polls – they were seen as the Best of the West – but they were incapable of hanging with Washington. If these teams faced each other 10 times over the span of six weeks, the UW wins 10 times.
Until Saturday – actually, all the way through Saturday – nobody outside the Pacific Northwest knew much more about Lorenzo Romar’s squad than the fact the coach is a good guy, with players who failed to overwhelm the competition in a weak conference.
During the Huskies’ 82-64 drubbing of “The Best Team in the West,” CBS play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes posed a question that will be repeated often before Washington travels to Syracuse:
“How did this team lose seven games in the Pac-10 Conference?”
Here’s how: They were in the process of finding out about themselves – finding out who belonged on the court, and when they belonged on the court. Then Holiday showed up, not as a bit player whose role was to give his teammates an occasional breather but as a force, a sort of miracle glue whose penchant for being everywhere at once bound the other pieces together.
And Bryan-Amaning showed up, not as the athletically gifted enigma sometimes prone to sleep-walking through his rotations but as a big man with quick feet, soft hands, and a bit of an attitude when there’s a rebound to be grabbed.
Best way to explain the Huskies’ awakening from frustrating underachievers into the Pac-10 tournament champions who’ve secured a berth in the Sweet 16?
Simple: They acquired two impact starters, and they acquired them with no fanfare and, thus, no pressure.
Now it gets serious. The climate changes. Having excelled beneath the radar, the Huskies now must get used to the scrutiny that accompanies regional semifinalists.
No longer will play-by-play announcers such as Dedes be prone to identify Huskies freshman Clarence Trent, from Gig Harbor High School, as a product of “Harbor, Wa.”
No longer can CBS studio analysts Seth Davis and Greg Anthony disregard Washington’s relevance in the tournament, as they did during the Selection Sunday show last week.
Seth: “Marquette versus New Mexico in the second-round matchup at San Jose, that’s an intriguing matchup.”
Greg: “Can’t wait for that.”
Except there never was a Marquette-New Mexico matchup. The Huskies rallied from a 60-45 deficit against the Golden Eagles on Thursday, then took the Lobos apart on Saturday.
“Don’t turn your back on Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Huskies,” Greg Gumbel told viewers in the CBS studio. “They’ve lost nine straight games.”
I suspect Gumbel meant to say the Huskies won nine straight games, but he could be forgiven: Kansas had lost to Northern Iowa, and, suddenly, conventional wisdom about the tournament had the integrity of last week’s tuna salad.
The odds of the Jayhawks winning the national championship, posted by Bodog Sportsbook, were 9-4. The odds of New Mexico winning were 40-1. The odds of Washington winning were steep – 150-1 – but not as steep as Northern Iowa’s, at 200-1.
And yet the 200-1 underdog, exhibiting poise at the free-throw line and a palpable belief in its destiny, staved off the 9-4 favorite.
Now it’s anybody’s tournament. The crazy-long odds don’t mean a thing.
The only number that counts is four, as in four victories to punctuate a UW streak winning streak that’s reached nine.
Greg Gumbel had this much right: Don’t turn your back on Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Huskies.
Turn your back?
When Justin Holiday is throwing a bounce pass to Quincy Pondexter, with Isaiah Thomas waiting on the wing?
Don’t even blink.