March 21, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE-- It was just one week ago. It only seems like a year.
The Huskies had finished practice on a Sunday afternoon, not sure where or when their next game would be. Still in practice uniforms, they were eating a team meal in the Founders' Club of Alaska Airlines Arena waiting for the NCAA tournament selection show to begin.
Just before teams began appearing in brackets on the television screens above them, Lorenzo Romar called his players into a huddle. The veteran coach was sensing his players were still clinging to the outright Pac-12 regular-season title as their salvation into the NCAAs. Yet he also believed losses at UCLA and then to Oregon State in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament days before had doomed their hopes. He believed his guys were about to be hugely disappointed.
So he offered them solitude, a chance to hurt. He suggested they watch the selections downstairs in private in their locker room, away from the staff, trainers and equipment men assembled upstairs. Away even from their assistant coaches.
All did - and in total silence.
"When we were watching Selection Sunday as a team we kind of knew what the outcome was going to be. But at the end of the day we had it in the back of our minds that we still had a chance to get into the NCAA tournament," Pac-12 freshman of the year Tony Wroten says now.
Sixty-eight teams were announced. Washington was not one of them. The Huskies became the first champion of a major conference to be left out of March Madness.
"When every team was picked and they didn't say our name, it was quiet," Wroten said. "Just silence."
Count me as one who believes the truest measures of greatness, character and maturity come through adversity.
So count me as one who believes Romar is the greatest leader of character to mature these kids into men that the Huskies could have.
The Pac-12's coach of the year is its coach of the postseason, too.
LOOK AT US NOW
The 53-year-old leader has shepherded this maturity of his youngest team in 10 seasons at UW since October, but no more impressively than in the last two weeks.
While the rest of the country was ridiculing them for being hollow champions of a down league, Romar was reviving his Huskies toward where they are now: Heading to New York for Tuesday's semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament against Minnesota.
When every team was picked and they didn't say our name, it was quiet. Just silence.
In 10 remarkable days, Washington's season has U-turned with a resurgence and focus that have revealed the Huskies' growth -- and exposed the NCAA tournament selection committee as mistaken.
Honestly, you don't think Washington could have won an NCAA tournament game or three the way it played in Tuesday night's tense, throw-down win over Oregon - which, by the way, also could have advanced in those watered-down NCAAs?
How much would you have liked the Huskies' chances against, say, Lehigh or Norfolk State, or any other double-digit seed that advanced into last weekend's third round?
"Yeah, especially seeing the games people are losing," sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox told me last weekend. "It could have been a good year for us to be in the NCAA tournament."
But now? Whatever. The Dawgs are embracing this NIT as its LAUN.
Look At Us Now.
They are referring to this NIT as a "national championship," which it is. In more ways than one.
It's a championship that would show the nation that while these Huskies have been maddeningly inconsistent, they are immensely talented and certainly worthy of their sport's biggest stage.
They leave this weekend instead for Madison Square Garden, one of the world's biggest stages.
"We are still upset about how we didn't take care of business when we could have," said Terrence Ross, who is taking care of his now by averaging 26.3 points through three NIT games. "We are just focusing on this new championship that we are after."
Romar changed that focus.
|WASHINGTON IN THE NIT|
He didn't wait for the NCAA to officially leave his team out. He began preparing his Huskies for this alternative in the minutes and hours after that loss to Oregon State March 8. First, he gave an honest, here's-the-deal talk inside the somber locker room of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings that UW was using that day at Staples Center. Then came another preparing chat later that night, after the team arrived back to SeaTac Airport.
When the NCAA officially left them out of the tournament three days later, when all others saw the Huskies' cause as lost, Romar saw it as an opportunity.
"When the NIT was done (selecting) Coach was telling us, `I know you guys don't want to be here. But I'm telling you, you keep winning and it's going to get more and more exciting. You are going to get more and more into it,'" Wroten says of college basketball's oldest tournament at 75 years.
"And as you can see ... now we are playing for a national championship in the NIT in New York."
Sure, it's not the Big Dance. But this big response could have lasting effects on the Huskies' program beyond next week.
Yet, to be honest, the buy-in wasn't overnight.
The day before top-seeded Washington hosted eighth-seeded and unknown Texas-Arlington to begin the NIT, senior captain Darnell Gant and other Huskies admitted they were still smarting over not being in the NCAAs.
"It sucks," is how Gant put it bluntly the day after Selection Sunday. "It doesn't feel good."
A day later, one week ago Tuesday, the Huskies' talent eventually overwhelmed the guests from the Southland Conference in Washington's unspectacular, 82-72 victory. The game was tied at the half.
"We made it through," Romar said fittingly that night.
Yet even that unspectacular win revealed this team's new maturity.
"You know, one of the things I don't know if a lot of people realize: There were finals (exams) going on that first week," Romar said. "That first game we played at the beginning of finals, and in the preseason we never schedule games during finals. We try to do it at the end of it (as when NCAA tournament games usually fall)."
START SPREADIN' THE NEWS
The second round of the NIT brought dangerous Northwestern and Big Ten scoring leader John Shurna to Seattle. The Huskies looked as focused as they've been in weeks, especially on defense. They embraced this opportunity for redemption. They held a great shooting team to 35 percent from the field and routed the Wildcats 76-55. That set up Tuesday's grudge match with Oregon.
It had the energy and vibe of a championship game. Both schools' bands blared. Ross went nuts again with 24 points. The defense clamped down on the Ducks in the second half. The Alaska Airlines Arena crowd, 800 short of a sellout, roared from before the opening tip through minutes after UW's 90-86 victory.
In 10 remarkable days, Washington's season has U-turned with a resurgence and focus that have revealed the Huskies' growth.
That's when Romar took the public-address microphone for the second consecutive postgame. The veteran coach thanked the fans - and rasped a cappella the opening line to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."
"Start spreadin' the news ..."
Honestly, Romar was singing Sinatra over the PA to roaring fans after a huge win over a bitter rival.
C'mon, how many college basketball coaches do that?
It's small wonder that when an opening at a major program - college or even some in the NBA - comes up this time of year, Romar's name eventually comes up in rumors. It will happen again in the coming weeks.
The guy is as genuine as spring flowers.
Yet, characteristically, Romar deflects the credit for this latest postseason revival to his players.
He credits Gant for unwavering and pitch-perfect leadership. He credits Wroten, UW's leading scorer in the regular season, for evolving his versatile game into handing out 15 assists while taking just 10 shots through the first two NIT rounds - then erupting for 22 points against Oregon.
He credits Abdul Gaddy with smooth, steady stewardship, and for the 11 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds the junior point guard had Tuesday night in one of his finest games as a Husky. And he credits for Ross for simply being ridiculously talented.
Above all, he's praising their maturity since the NCAA said they weren't worthy of its tournament.
"It's interesting. Our guys have been focused but not too uptight about this tournament," Romar said of the NIT. "There is a pretty good demeanor about this group, and it's showed so far in our three games."
Gee, wonder where they got that?
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.