Moments after Washington’s furious second-half comeback versus Oregon fell short Saturday afternoon, coach Mike Hopkins gave his players a pep talk emphasizing the progress they’ve achieved since November.
Defying a forecast assuring another gloomy winter on Montlake, the Huskies won 20 games – three of those victories against opponents ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time – and finished 10-8 in a Power Five conference.
“You guys have accomplished a lot,” Hopkins told them, “and the season’s not over.”
The late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano likely spoke similar words 35 years ago, when his team wrapped up the regular season as an ACC middleweight. Odds of the Wolfpack avoiding the surly bonds of the NIT were long and the road was cluttered with obstacles, beginning with a first-round match against Wake Forest in the oldest and most competitive of conference tournaments.
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A last-second basket gave N.C. State a 71-70 victory over the Demon Deacons on March 11. Three weeks later, on April 4, Valvano famously celebrated Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beater for the national championship by storming the court at the University of New Mexico.
Much about college basketball has changed since 1983. Players skilled enough to consider an NBA career rarely remain in school longer than a year. Half-court sets more often conclude with shots launched beyond the 3-point line than passes to a hoss whose back is to the basket. Home teams are dressed in green and red and black uniforms, playing on floors painted by muralists. Final Four destinations do not find cozy campus arenas like the University of New Mexico in the mix.
North Carolina State’s rapid transformation from good-but-not-great team in 1983 has no relevance to Hopkins and the Huskies, except for this: The transformation happened, and because it happened, anything is possible.
The numbers certainly align. The 17-10 regular-season record of the eventual 1983 national champions corresponds with Washington’s 20-11 record this season. The Wolfpack went 8-6 in the ACC, the Huskies went 10-8 in the Pac-12.
N.C. State was given next to no chance of winning a conference tournament that figured to be a tossup between North Carolina’s powerhouse – Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, guys like that – and a Virginia team built around 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson.
Bovada has put the odds of Washington winning the Pac-12 Tournament at 20-to-1, behind Arizona (7-to-4), USC (7-to-2), UCLA (7-to-1), Utah (8-to-1), Arizona State (17-to-2) and Stanford (16-to-1).
On the bright side, the Huskies first-round opponent in their tournament opener Wednesday is Oregon State (50-to-1). Should the Huskies advance, they’ll face USC, and they won’t relish the challenge. UW beat USC back in December in the conference opener but the Trojans rebounded nicely, finishing second in the Pac-12.
But first things first, and the first thing on Washington’s agenda in Las Vegas is Oregon State. The Beavers beat the Huskies in a double-overtime thriller at OSU on Feb. 10, three weeks before UW got revenge with a 79-77 victory at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
It’s a tossup, with a season on the line, before the kind of neutral audience that watched N.C. State begin its 1983 national-championship run in Atlanta.
Home floors generally are worth a three- or four-point advantage, but home noise can corrupt the minds of anxious teenagers.
“We got the crowd rolling,” Hopkins said Saturday, noting that Huskies’ possessions extended into the last 10 seconds of the shot clock were not fluid. “You’ve got to trust each other. Ten seconds is a long time, but because of the crowd and the adrenaline, you play a little bit faster than you want to.”
There will be no home crowd greeting cheering on the Huskies in Las Vegas. Any adrenaline will have to be self-created.
“It’s a great opportunity. You love to play in a conference tournament and, hopefully, a postseason tournament. I’m excited,” said Hopkins. “Las Vegas is a great city. The kids are really looking forward to it.”
The kids must beat Oregon State before embarking on the heavy-lifting phase of their improbable admittance into the NCAA Tournament.
A pipe dream, to be sure, but a dream a similar team realized 35 years ago.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath