This previously sputtering team has a revised goal: Finish in the top four of a conference that currently has the nation’s third-highest RPI and could send as many as half its teams into the NCAA tournament.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Usually, Lorenzo Romar wants his Huskies blind to the big picture.
“Year after year that’s something I don’t really talk about, the standings. But this year we’ve talked about it more,” the 12th-year coach of Washington (13-8, 5-3 Pac-12) said on Thursday.
That was two days before his Dawgs – buried by many in December when they were 6-5 -- play Washington State (8-12, 1-7) in Pullman with a chance to reach second place in one of the nation’s most highly regarded conferences.
Few outside UW’s locker room believed these young, remade-on-the-fly Dawgs could be 6-3 and the Pac-12’s second-place team at the midway point of league play.
“The reason we have (talked about standings more) is because we started out the way we did. We were so poor defensively and our record wasn’t the best,” Romar said. “I think it’s important now for us to see the big picture, to see where we are at, because it would be easy to still think about what we were and not realize what we’ve accomplished.
“We’ve talked to our team about we had the injuries, we had this happen, we had adversity – and this is where we are. Look at the standings. Do we want to go back to poverty, do we want to go back there? Or do we like how this feels?
“In order for us to stay there these are some of the things we are going to have to do.”
Namely continue to defend.
Leading scorer and fifth-year senior team captain C.J. Wilcox says he and his teammates are talking about this chance for second place, and are making sure they give Washington State their full attention – with or without injured leading scorer Davonte Lacy – to ensure the Huskies don’t waste it.
“We know the position we are in and the opportunity that we have,” said Wilcox, second in the league in scoring at 19.6 points per game. “We take care of business, we could be in a really good position.”
The Huskies have been scrimmaging more during this rare, semi-off week without a weeknight game.
Their coaches got in a day of travel and recruiting before the team returned to practices. The team flies to Pullman Friday afternoon, stays over in Moscow, Idaho, Friday night then plays Saturday at 3 p.m. against the Cougars on the Pac-12 Networks television, the Washington IMG College radio network -- and here on GoHuskies.com with another official game chat featuring free streaming audio of the UW radio broadcast.
Back to that big picture Romar and his Huskies have been viewing, for a change.
The Huskies are one game behind UCLA (17-4, 6-2 in the league) for second place, after the Bruins escaped Eugene with a two-point win at Oregon (14-6, 2-6) Thursday night.
UW’s current place inside the conference, surprising to many, brings to mind what Romar said before last week’s home wins over Oregon and Oregon State: "I think we’re still in a position to make some noise."
Arizona (21-0, 8-0), the nation’s No. 1 team for weeks now, would have to lose at least three times in its final 10 conference games -- and either UCLA, California, Arizona State or the Huskies would have to win out -- for the Wildcats to miss out on winning the Pac-12 regular-season title.
So the battle for second place is on.
Arizona State (16-5, 5-3) plays at Stanford (13-7, 4-4) Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night Arizona is at Cal (14-7, 5-3). UCLA plays at eighth-place Oregon State (11-8, 3-4) on Sunday morning.
The Huskies play at ninth-place Utah (14-6, 3-5) and sixth-place Colorado (15-6, 4-4) next week.
UW, Cal and ASU are currently tied for third place in the league, just behind UCLA. The Dawgs have already beaten ASU in their only regular-season meeting. UW hosts UCLA in their only regular-season game March 6. The Dawgs lost a couple weeks ago at Cal, but they get the Bears again at home on Feb. 15.
How much does second place matter towards the NCAA tournament in March? As noted college basketball number cruncher Jerry Palm lists, the Pac-12’s combined RPI is currently third best in the nation behind only the Big Ten and the Big 12. The strength of the Pac-12 is rated ahead of the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Pac-12’s RPI was sixth last season. It was 10th in 2011-12, when UW won the league in the regular season but was left out of the NCAA tournament.
Palm is currently projecting the Pac-12 will get six teams into this season’s NCAA tournament. So far Washington is not one of his six teams in, because of its eight overall losses including missed opportunities against Connecticut, Indiana and San Diego State in non-conference play.
The top four teams in the final Pac-12 regular-season standings get a first-round bye in the conference tournament that begins March 12 in Las Vegas.
Nigel Williams-Goss is thinking about just that while coming off a UW freshman-record 32 points that rallied the Huskies from 12 down to beat Oregon State last Saturday. It’s the goal he thinks will get Washington back into the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
“We’ve battled back to where that’s definitely a possibility,” Williams-Goss said. “I know I think if we finish in the top four in the league we should be pretty safe. That’s my goal, to finish somewhere in that top four.”
Romar didn’t go quite that far to think UW would be “safe” to finish inside the league’s top four. After all, he was the coach of what remains the only regular-season winner of a major conference to ever miss out on the NCAA tournament, those Huskies of the 2011-12 season.
Romar agreed this season is “night and day” different than two seasons ago in terms of the Pac-12’s strength and perception nationally – including in the eyes of the NCAA tournament’s selection committee.
“I think with the way our league is now, and with the success that it had in the non-conference (season), that will certainly help,” Romar said of a top-four regular season finish in the Pac-12 meaning an NCAA tournament berth. “It sure would help our chances if we were able to do that.
“This is a completely different year. The league is stronger (than when UW won it but got snubbed).”
In that way, Washington should be rooting for Arizona to stay unbeaten and atop the national polls. The Huskies and Wildcats don’t play again this regular season on the league’s unbalanced schedule.
“I don’t think it hurts. I think as long as they are No. 1 the Pac-12 looks good,” Romar said.
But first things first: Taking care of business inside always zany, difficult Beasley Coliseum in Pullman on Saturday. The Huskies have won four of their last five games at WSU, but it’s never easy there – or anywhere – against the Cougars.
They’ve been without leading scorer Davonte Lacy for most of this month because of his injured ribs. Washington State coach Ken Bone, a former top assistant of Romar’s at UW, said this week he is hopeful Lacy can return Saturday. Romar and Wilcox said they are preparing as if Lacy will play against the Huskies.
“We’ll prepare for him,” Wilcox said. “But like always it’s about how we handle our business.”
Asked before Thursday’s practice if he’s surprised the Huskies’ current business is a chance for second place in the Pac-12 halfway into the conference season, Wilcox shook his head from side to side.
“To me, it’s not surprising. I knew once we got into the flow of things and got the defensive thing down that we would be just fine,” he said.
“Now it’s showing it. We just have to finish out the Pac-12 the right way.”