March 2, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - There are so many Chicken Littles running around the Huskies, you'd think they are playing in a barnyard.
Yet those actually on the team know the sky is anything but falling on Washington (19-9, 10-6 Pac-10), even after Sunday night's tough home loss to Washington State.
Specifically, coach Lorenzo Romar knows better. He knows Thursday night's 6 p.m. game against Pac-10 co-leading UCLA (21-8, 12-4) at Alaska Airlines Arena is a huge opportunity on national television (ESPN2) to get the Dawgs back to how they were playing before their slog against the Cougars.
"You know, it's interesting, I always say people remember you for the last thing you do," Romar said, for maybe the sixth time this season.
He then detailed how he thought his guys played perhaps their best game this season while blowing out California 109-77 on Jan. 16, immediately following a three-game losing streak. He thought the Huskies' strong play continued in the four successive games, until Washington State. Those wins over Stanford, at Arizona State and at Seattle University bracketed a thrilling, 87-86 loss at then-No. 12 Arizona.
The defense-first coach thought Washington continued to play with the requisite defensive intensity during the first half Sunday against WSU, but the offense failed and left UW trailing 24-17 at halftime.
The way Romar sees it, the second half against the Cougars -- when the Huskies allowed 56 points, fell behind by 21 and couldn't come all the way back -- is the only truly poor defensive period his team has played in four weeks.
"So I'm not ready to say we are sliding this way," Romar said, slanting his hand palm down toward the floor of Hec Edmundson Pavilion, "based off that one game."
Yet he and the Huskies know the margin of error to make another NCAA tournament is gone. There is supreme urgency to Thursday's meeting with the rugged, surging Bruins, to facing slow-down USC at home in the Saturday night's regular-season finale -- and to keep on winning through the conference tournament that begins March 9 in Los Angeles.
"This is a big one, this weekend," leading scorer Isaiah Thomas said.
"It's live or die now. We really probably have to win out to get in the NCAA tournament," Gant said.
That may not be so. Romar, for one, believes the Huskies' gritty comeback from two 12-point deficits on national television less than two weeks ago before losing at the buzzer at then-Pac-10-leading Arizona impressed upon the NCAA selection committee how competitive Washington would be in the tournament. Plus, a win Thursday night would make the Huskies the only Pac-10 team to sweep the Bruins this season -- and depending on how Saturday night plays out UW could finish second in the conference.
Hardly bubblelicious stuff.
Thomas, UW's other captain, also does not think the Huskies absolutely have to win these two games this weekend to get to 21-9, plus win the Pac-10 tournament, to make the NCAAs for the fifth time in seven years.
"But that's the mindset I want my guys to have," said Thomas, UW's leading scorer and Pac-10's assist leader who scored 21 points against Washington State. "We want to try to win out just so there are no ifs, ands or buts about making the NCAA tournament."
To do that, the Huskies need to consistently bring defensive intensity, whether their shots are falling or not. That's been their quest all season.
As for those shots, Romar wants them to be better choices.
Early in the season, Washington was leading the nation in 3-point shooting. Then teams began jumping out further on the perimeter to deny open looks. Yet the Huskies have kept on firing, whether or not an opponent is in their faces.
UW made 8 of 27 3-point shots against WSU Sunday night, and missed 12 of its first 13. Romar didn't mind the number. He minded the quality. He counted 11 of those treys as contested. He would rather those became 11 more attempts to get the ball inside for higher-percentage shots or free-throw opportunities.
"That's another area we have to get better in, in two days before we play UCLA -- being more patient in turning some (3's) down," Romar said. "If you eliminate the contested ones, you want shoot as many but your percentage will go up - the ol' less-is more theory."
It won't be easy for Washington, the league's scoring leader at 85.4 points per game, to fix things this weekend. UCLA is third in the Pac-10 in scoring defense and field goal-percentage defense. USC leads the conference by allowing just 62.2 points per game.
The Bruins have won eight of their last nine, including a blowout of Arizona last weekend in which they held the Wildcats to their season-low of 49 points. Romar thinks UCLA has greatly improved its defense since UW won at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 31, part of a rare sweep at the L.A. schools for the Huskies that is the high point of UW's season so far.
Romar also thinks the Bruins have four players destined to play in the NBA: 6-foot-10, 305-pound Joshua Smith from Kentwood High School in the Seattle suburb of Kent; Reeves Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer at 14 points per game; and guards Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt.
So a Huskies win in this one in front of another national TV audience would impress the NCAA selection folks. It would also give Romar five 20-win seasons in his first nine years leading the Huskies. And it would mean Washington will have won both games of the regular-season series against UCLA for only the third time ever, after 1987 and 2006.
Washington has won six straight over the Bruins at home, including by 29 last season at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. That's the largest UW win in the 129-game series that began in 1937.
Another victory over UCLA would be a huge way to begin the most important month of all.
"It's playoff time. Every game now is like a playoff game," Romar said. "You just have to expect to make sure you are going to come out and play to your potential.
"We're confident in the fact that if we're focused and play Husky basketball, we have a chance to be successful against anyone."