Shocked Huskies Regroup For NIT, Host Tuesday
March 11, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Darnell Gant shuffled from the locker room to the training room. As low as his spirits were, his head stayed high.
"I'm good. Thank you," Washington's captain said Sunday, moments after the national selection committee decided that Gant would not become the first Husky to play in four NCAA tournaments.
C.J. Wilcox was still shaking his head, an hour after the team had received the crushing news during a post-practice gathering in the team room at Alaska Airlines Arena.
"We are all in shock," Wilcox said.
Washington's wildly up-and-down season bottomed out Sunday at around 3:40 p.m. That's when the last of the 68 teams were announced for the NCAA tournament.
And the outright regular-season champion of the Pac-12 wasn't one of them. In one, dizzying week, the Huskies have gone from outright conference champs for the second time in 59 years to the NIT.
The Huskies (21-10) will host Texas-Arlington (24-8) of the Southland Conference Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in the first round of the 75th National Invitation Tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena . The game will be on ESPNU, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat.
"For me, personally, it's an opportunity to prove we are a good team. We'll try to win the NIT," Wilcox said.
Washington is a No. 1 seed in the 32-team field of college basketball's oldest tournament; the NIT began in 1938, one year before the NCAA tournament began. The winner of UW's game Tuesday will play the winner of fourth-seeded Northwestern and fifth-seeded Akron sometime between Thursday and March 19.
Three wins in the NIT - Oregon is also on UW's side of the bracket - and the Huskies could return to Madison Square Garden in New York, where they narrowly lost to Marquette and Duke in December. The NIT semifinals and finals will be played March 27 and 29 at The Garden.
That possibility was a tiny consolation for the Huskies Sunday.
"New York was fun, but that's not exactly where we wanted to be," Wilcox said. "But there's nothing we can do about that now. We have to take it."
The NIT will be another test of resolve for a young team with so much talent yet so much inconsistency.
"It's another challenge. It's a chance to win a championship," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "It's not what we wanted. It wasn't our first choice. But we need to take a hold of it and seize the moment, get ready to go."
The Huskies are the first team to win a regular-season title in the six so-called "power" conferences then fail to make the NCAA tournament.
They are the first team since 1954 to have the best regular-season league record in the Pac-12/Pac-10/Pac-8/Pacific Coast Conference and not make it to the NCAAs.
"I was confident that we would (get in), just because we won the league. Somebody had never won the whole thing and not made it into the tournament," Wilcox said. "So I was confident we would make it."
Romar knew his players felt snubbed.
"Our players are very, very disappointed. VERY disappointed," Romar said. "Because after winning the conference outright I don't think they could see any way why we would not be in this tournament -- in their minds."
But the normally positive coach feared this reality since Thursday afternoon. That's when top-seeded UW lost 86-84 to ninth-seeded Oregon State in its first game at the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles.
"My glass was half empty after that Oregon State loss," Romar said.
The veteran coach has sat on an executive committee of national coaches that recently went through a mock selection of the NCAA tournament, to better learn the process. He knows national perception - and RPI - are realities in choosing the NCAA tournament field.
That loss to the Beavers plus a defeat at UCLA in the regular-season finale the previous Saturday sent Washington's all-important RPI from the high 50s to the 71 number that the selection committee used to keep the Huskies out. No team has ever made the NCAA tournament with an RPI lower than the 67 USC had last season before the Trojans played an NCAA first-round play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
Add that to the fact the Pac-12 had no notable non-conference wins and a low perception nationally, and Romar sensed UW's fate before it arrived.
"I've been accused of being a pessimist more these last three days than I have in the last 10 years," Romar said.
"It's past us. We are in a tournament."
That's what had Desmond Simmons shooting free throws in Alaska Airlines Arena, music playing from the basket standard, after the NCAA field was announced Sunday. Martin Breunig shot jumpers with balls fed back to him by a machine at the opposite basket.
"We've already spoken to our team about that," Romar said even before the NIT pairings were announced. "There are teams that are in the NIT that are disappointed, it's a letdown for them because their sights are set on the NCAA tournament. They come in and `have' to play in this tournament. Then there are others that were waiting, waiting, for their names for be called for the NIT - just like we were for the NCAA tournament.
"The trick is that if you are one of the teams that are let down playing one of the teams that are so excited, they can get you."
TICKET INFO:Tickets for Tuesday's game at Alaska Airlines Arena go on sale to season ticket holders Sunday night online only. The season ticket holder priority deadline to order is 4:30 p.m. on Monday. Tickets for non-season ticket holders go on sale to the public Monday morning at 9 a.m. Unsold season ticket locations will go on sale to the public Tuesday morning. Tickets can be purchased by calling the ticket office at (206) 543-2200.
Tickets prices are: