For Huskies, Playoffs Begin Thursday vs. ASU
Feb. 14, 2012
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The Huskies remain tied for first place with California.
Their path to a title remains treacherous: Final home games this week against Arizona State's tricky matchup zone defense and surging, athletic Arizona, then three tests on the road.
Yet no matter how the final five regular-season games go in this muddled conference, the Dawgs (17-8, 10-3 Pac-12) have discovered at least one clear truth:
Win, and we'll get in. Into another NCAA tournament, that is.
"We definitively can't lose another game, because Cal is a good team and they aren't going to allow themselves to lose," Tony Wroten, Washington's leading scorer, said before practice for Thursday's 8 p.m. game against ASU (8-17, 4-9) -- on ROOT Sports television in the Northwest, Fox Sports Net nationally plus the Washington IMG College radio network and here again on GoHuskies.com with the exclusive game chat.
"If we want to get that outright (conference title), we have to win every game from here on out."
Just as teammates Terrence Ross, C.J. Wilcox and Abdul Gaddy stated immediately following UW's 75-72 grind past Oregon State in Corvallis Sunday, Wroten said Tuesday he thinks winning the Pac-12 regular-season championship outright is the Huskies' best way to ensure a place in the 68-team NCAA field.
"Yeah, definitely, you don't want to lose games here and then you have to win the Pac-12 tournament to get in," Wroten said. "You want to win the outright then have a little leeway -- but still want to win the Pac-12 tournament."
Though just a freshman, Wroten has history backing him up.
Only the conference's tournament champion receives an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Though the nation and the selection committee know this is a relatively down year for the league's overall strength, a couple weeks ago Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said he couldn't fathom the Pac-12's regular-season champion not getting an at-large way into the NCAAs.
No wonder he can't. The 53-year-old Romar was four years away from being born the last time the team that finished with the best regular season record in the Pacific Coast/Pacific-8/Pac-10 Conference failed to make the NCAA tournament.
That was 1954.
Oregon State won the North division of the nine-team PCC at 11-5 in the league that year. USC won the South at 8-5 - then reached the NCAAs by beating the Beavers in a best-of-three playoff.
Since then the team with the top regular-season record in the conference has made the NCAA tournament 57 consecutive times, even while the league's automatic bid has come through winning league tournament (from 1987-90 and 2002-present).
"Really? Huh," Romar said with a smile when informed of that history on Tuesday.
"I like those odds."
The exception was 1958, when the PCC no longer had divisions and Cal and Oregon State finished tied atop the league at 12-4. Only Cal made that season's NCAAs.
That leaves the Huskies hell bent on outlasting Cal for this Pac-12 regular-season title. And that makes Thursday's game against 10th-place ASU huge.
"Everybody's fighting for their lives right now," Romar said. "Our challenge is to remain in first place and win the conference championship.
"So I'd say it's pretty critical."
UW had trouble defending Arizona State outside and had problems scoring against the Sun Devils consistently on Jan. 26 in Tempe. The Huskies eventually used muscle, Wroten's 22 points and the freshman's memorable, poster-izing dunk over Jonathan Gilling to rally past ASU 60-54.
As Wilcox noted Sunday after his 17 points and free throws in the final minute help seal UW's 12th win in 15 games, the Huskies want to seize this opportunity over these next three weekends to win the league. They do not want to have to rely on having to win three games in three days, or more, at the conference tournament that begins March 7 in Los Angeles.
Washington has won the last two Pac-12 tournament titles, including last season when it felt it had to in order to make the NCAAs. Yet the second outright conference championship in four seasons -- and just the second for UW in more than a half century -- is more attainable right now than the league tourney crapshoot may be.
After hosting the Arizonas this weekend Washington is at Washington State Feb. 25, at 12th-place USC March 1 and at seventh-place UCLA March 3.
Thursday Cal hosts Oregon, which like Arizona and Colorado is one game back of the co-leaders at 9-4. The Bears then host Oregon State Saturday and have games remaining at lowly Utah, at Colorado (which is 13-1 at home) and at Stanford (the Cardinal are 12-2 at home).
Since the conference went to an 18-game league schedule for the 1978-79 season there have been just two regular-season champions with league records worse than 14-4. Cal went 13-5 and won it in 2009-10; Washington and USC were co-league champions at 13-5 in 1984-85.
"Control what you can control, is how I see it," Romar said. "We are in a situation where we can help control our future, if we do what we are supposed to do."
The path to winning the next five games will be smoother if the Huskies become more consistent defensively within games. It would also help if the Huskies begin shooting better. They won at Oregon State despite shooting a season-low 35 percent. They were 36 percent from the field in last Thursday's no-show loss at Oregon.
C.J. Wilcox, UW's best outside shooter and 3-point threat, missed three weeks last month with a stress fracture in his upper leg. He's still not healthy enough to fully participate in practices and is due for another X-ray next week.
Wroten says he is "about 90 percent" healed from the thigh bruise he got Feb. 2 early in the home win over UCLA. He's played through that, averaging 13 points in the four games since he injured the quadriceps. That's four points below his per-game average this season, which is third-best in the Pac-12.
Senior Scott Suggs, among the conference's top 3-point shooters last season, is out for the season and redshirting following a broken foot.
"Here's what I know: We haven't shot the ball very well," Romar said. "C.J. has been rusty, so he hasn't shot it as well as he can. Scott hasn't been here. We've been inconsistent shooting the ball from outside.
"We've scored points in the paint in a different way. We've gotten offensive rebound baskets. We've penetrated and gotten baskets in the paint. But we haven't had much in transition (scoring) that way. Those are all areas that usually we're nails, usually we can count on those things happening.
"So, if we're sitting here 3-10 (in the league), it's a disaster. But at 10-3, knowing that at any time C.J. is coming back, Terrence is going to be more consistent -- he's been a consistent scorer, but I think he's a better offensive player than what he's been showing -- all of a sudden if we start to click a little more offensively, then we can be where we want to be."
It has become clear that where the Huskies want to be is atop the conference when the regular season ends March 4, not necessarily after the league tournament ends March 10.