On Jan. 2, the bozo whose opinions are published in this space noted how the Washington Huskies had "everything required for a sustained run in the NCAA tournament. If Washington goes two rounds and out in March, it will be a disappointment."
I still believe some of that rant. Despite two defeats, over the past eight days, in an arena that used to be worth a tangible home-court advantage, the Huskies remain equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to make a deep run in the tournament without, like, qualifying for the tournament.
After Washington’s regular-season finale Saturday, when a Senior Night collision with USC soon turned into Sayonara Night, I wondered about the Huskies’ status with the “bracketologists” – the experts whose prognostications of the tournament field is a full-time job.
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The consensus opinion? Washington likely is in, unless it isn’t. A popular phrase, applicable to all teams on the fringe, is that Lorenzo Romar’s club “has work to do.”
The Huskies are fond of pointing out how they survived a similar test of their grit just last year. Hopeful of securing an at-large bid but assured of nothing after a third-place conference finish, they earned an automatic berth by winning the Pacific-10 Conference tournament.
Once they got their ticket, the Huskies jelled when it mattered most, beating Marquette and then New Mexico. The upset of the No. 3 seeded Lobos found Washington playing its best basketball of the season.
With most of that group returning for an encore – every key contributor back except Quincy Pondexter, who graduated, and Elston Turner, who transferred, and Tyreese Breshers, implored to quit because of medical issues – the Huskies had reason to presume another NCAA invitation was inevitable.
It was so inevitable that some of us – OK, one of us – concluded that another two-and-out Pac-10 tourney effort would be a disappointment.
In retrospect, the Huskies most formidable opponent this season wasn’t Arizona, or Kentucky, or Washington State, which will attempt to go 3-0 against the UW in the conference tournament. The Huskies most formidable opponent this season is the Huskies of last season.
Whenever they’ve stumbled, whenever they’ve taken the floor with a strange, passive demeanor requiring a second-half comeback that usually has fallen short, the postgame rallying theme has been:
“We’ve done this before. We know how to regroup. We control our fate.”
There are parallels from 2010, when the Huskies went to the Pac-10 tournament as a third seed, with a 21-9 overall record, 11-7 in the conference. (A year later, they are seeded third, with a 20-10 overall record, 11-7 in the conference.)
But history is not easily mimicked. The 2010 Huskies brought a four-game winning streak into Los Angeles. Over their last 11 regular-season games, they went 9-2.
The 2011 Huskies have no such momentum. They are 5-6 over their last 11 regular-season games. While the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t dwell on the “What Have You Done Lately?” component, it’s a potential factor in a tiebreaker scenario.
You can build a case for Washington’s tournament worthiness, I suppose, on sheer numbers: Its Ratings Percentage Index ranks 45th, its strength-of-schedule ranks 52nd. Neither ranking is outstanding, but with 37 at-large teams in the mix for a 68-team field, those work.
More problematic is the eye test.
While considering the Huskies, the selection committee has watched Justin Holiday – the senior who inherited Pondexter’s role as the right guy in the right place at the right time – devolve into Nowhere Man.
Junior forward Darnell Gant had enough defensive moxie to start as a freshman. Remember the 6-foot-8 forward who blocked shots and grabbed timely rebounds and generally reminded us of Bobby Jones, the ultimate Huskies role player?
Is Gant still on the team?
C.J. Wilcox brings amazing grace to a jump shot – his form already draws comparisons to Ray Allen, the former Sonic and future Hall of Famer – but two nights after his second-half display of deadeye artistry against UCLA, Wilcox went 1-for-7 against USC.
And yet ...
When the Huskies are clicking, when Isaiah Thomas is driving and dishing, and Venoy Overton is scrapping and clawing, and Matthew Bryan-Amaning is asserting himself as an interior force, they can beat anybody, anywhere. If they’re invited to an NCAA tournament that boasts no presumptive powerhouse, the Huskies have the talent to advance to the Final Four.
But if they don’t take care of business against Washington State on Thursday, all bets are off.
In the spirit of March Madness, please allow me to acknowledge a recent quote from the mixed-up mind of Charlie Sheen. Amid the blizzard of crazy words Sheen donated to the airwaves last week, a few of them embraced eloquence.
“Defeat,” Sheen said, “is not an option.”