Feb. 23, 2011
Click here to receive Gregg Bell's "Unleashed" column via email each week.
SEATTLE - It didn't seem like it at the time. And it still doesn't feel like it days later.
But Tucson may prove to be the best thing to happen to the Huskies since all-black uniforms.
Matthew Bryan-Amaning barely slept inside UW's team hotel next to the University of Arizona's campus Saturday night. Usually chatty Isaiah Thomas barely talked. The Dawgs were still sulking over how their chance to win the Pac-10's regular-season championship got swatted into the McKale Center stands by Arizona's Derrick Williams in the final 3 seconds.
The heartbreaking, 87-86 loss to the first-place Wildcats burned all the more because it followed Washington's remarkable rally back from 12 points down in the second half and into the lead against the nation's 10th-ranked team, which is undefeated at home.
But afterward, coach Lorenzo Romar walked into the silent locker room, looked into the frustrated faces of his Huskies and told them: "Remember the positive things you did out there. In some ways, you took some steps forward."
Those steps looked like monster stomps Tuesday night back in Seattle. Washington pounded overmatched Seattle University 95-74 at KeyArena, restoring its swagger and its game in time for Sunday night's revenge match against Washington State at Alaska Airlines Arena.
"I expected the guys to play hard," Thomas said after 20 points and four assists against Seattle U. that seemed routine and almost effortless. "We were so upset about that loss in Arizona, but we came out, had fun and got a win."
Forget about that bubble on which some are placing UW. The steps these Huskies took in their impressive defeat at Arizona will lead them all the way into their sixth NCAA tournament appearance in eight seasons next month.
The Arizona game was a much-needed showcase for the maligned Pac-10. In 40 dramatic minutes, the Huskies and Wildcats raised the league's stature across the country - and I believe it clinched three places for the conference in the NCAA tournament. Or are you going to tell me third-place Washington didn't show it could compete with anyone Saturday, especially on a neutral floor?
ESPN's national audience Saturday night undoubtedly included some members of the NCAA tournament's selection committee. They got to see the most compelling and exciting game in the conference this season. Sure, Arizona went to three overtimes at California a couple of weeks ago, but Cal is a near-.500 team. There was far more at stake between the Dawgs and `Cats, and the result was sublime. Big leads. Big rallies. A huge, taut finish that the network continuously highlighted into Sunday.
Even though they lost at Arizona, I say the third-place Huskies - a half-game behind UCLA for second right now -- gained a strong foot hold for an at-large berth into the NCAAs should they fail to win the automatic entry that comes with winning the Pac-10 tournament that begins March 9 in Los Angeles.
"That was a great college basketball game. I think when you watch those two teams playing out there, it has to cross your mind they are going to be very competitive in postseason play," Romar said.
"It's one thing to read about it. But to see it, I think that would impress people more."
It has impressed at least one of the guys who spend an inordinate amount of their lives toiling in a science they call "bracketology."
Using the same RPI ranking comparisons and weighing the other factors the NCAA tournament selection committee will use in 2½ weeks to select its 68-team field, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Washington holding steady as a No. 7 seed. That's the same place he had the Huskies last week before their win at Arizona State and memorable loss at Arizona. And it's four seeds higher than what UW got last year - after winning the Pac-10 tournament and before reaching the Sweet 16.
Incidentally - or ironically -- Lunardi has the Huskies beginning this NCAA tournament at a subregional back in Tucson. So the desert could indeed prove to be UW's oasis.
The Huskies regained their edge, their bounce, away from campus while in Arizona. They proved to themselves they can excel against a top-flight team playing near its best with the setting and intangibles set against them.
Bryan-Amaning took a season-high 19 shots, played 39 minutes, but didn't attempt a free throw at Arizona. And Williams, the Wildcats' star who probably clinched the Pac-10's player-of-the-year award with his 26-point, 11-rebound night, played 35 minutes down low -- yet did not get called for a single foul.
Still, UW fought back after trailing big early, when Arizona's white-out crowd was roaring and the Wildcats were raining 3-pointers on them for a 12-point lead. Down by 9 at the half, Thomas pulled Bryan-Amaning aside on their way back onto the court. The former prep school teammates in Connecticut decided to start running freelance pick-and-roll plays near the foul line.
Thomas kept driving into Bryan-Amaning's screens, and MBA kept peeling into the lane to receive Thomas' passes for scored over the flat-footed Wildcats. Thomas ended up with 10 assists - his third double-digit assist game this season - and Bryan-Amaning scored 18 of his 24 points after that meeting with his point guard. They brought the Huskies back from another 12-point hole early in the second half and into a four-point lead before the wild finish.
Given the results, that won't be the last time this season they decide to take over games on their own. Maybe it will be again on Sunday against Washington State. Then again, maybe they won't need to.
Washington is one of 23 teams that entered Tuesday undefeated at home this season. First-place Arizona is the only other Pac-10 team perfect at home. Barely perfect, after the Huskies' thrilling visit Saturday.
UW stands just wins over Washington State plus over UCLA and USC away next weekend from its sixth undefeated home season in the 84-year history of Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It's only been done twice in the last half century: By Marv Harshman's 1984 team, and by Romar's 2005 Huskies, led by captain Will Conroy.
Both of those perfect home teams reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
These Dawgs haven't just been winning at Alaska Airlines Arena. They've been steamrolling everyone who walks in the door not wearing purple and gold. Their average margin of victory at Hec Ed this season is 27.3 points.
The Huskies enter Sunday night's game having won 14 consecutive home games by 10 or more points, an ongoing school record. The last time they didn't blow someone out onto Montlake Boulevard is the same night they last lost at home, Feb. 18, 2010, to USC.
The Huskies are 128-23 at home in Romar's nine seasons at UW.
So these next two weekends represent a prime chance to seize both momentum for March and the second seed in the Pac-10 tournament. The latter would give Washington an initial game against the winner of the eight-nine matchup that will be played the night before in Los Angeles.
"It makes a difference," Romar said. "If you are in an opportunity to be in a two seed as opposed to a three, you are playing an opponent that played a game."
A win in that scenario, and Washington could be playing UCLA in the Pac-10 semifinals. They will be on their back into the NCAA tournament.
And that loss at Arizona will have proven to be a catalyst, rather than a catastrophe.
"I do think we are in a position where if we take care of our own business, we'll be fine," Romar said.
"I just know we have four (now three) games where we don't leave Seattle before the Pac-10 tournament. We have to take advantage of 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.