More Dawgs Vs. Ducks Spices Up NIT Quarterfinals
March 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - It's March. It's Oregon.
Yes, it's the National Invitation Tournament instead of the NCAAs. And, yes, the rest of the nation is absorbed in March Madness.
But its Northwest corner is readying for another Dawgs-Ducks doozy.
Doesn't it just fit this wacky, up-and-down Washington season that the top-seeded Huskies (23-10), the Pac-12 regular-season champions, are getting two, enticing perks in Tuesday night's NIT quarterfinals against third-seeded Oregon (24-9) that they would not have received had they reached the bigger tournament?
Namely, a chance to return to New York's Madison Square Garden this season. Oh, and an unexpected shot at redemption.
"It feels bigger than a conference game. It's feels like it's another game we have to get to win a championship," UW scoring leader Terrence Ross said before Monday morning's practice at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Then he thought back to Oregon's 82-57 rout of some sleepwalking Dawgs Feb. 9 in Eugene, Washington's only loss in an 11-game span through February.
"Everybody on this team wants to play Oregon again, to redeem ourselves," Ross said. "So that's extra motivation."
And not just for the guy who went to Jefferson High School in Portland.
"They put it on us," Huskies senior captain Darnell Gant said. "Now we have the opportunity to put it on them."
UW Pac-12 freshman of the year Tony Wroten added: "They beat us bad in Eugene. That hurt us a lot.
"It's a great thing we get another chance to play them."
So, yes, the 6 p.m. game Tuesday at Alaska Airlines Arena for a place in the NIT semifinals (ESPN television, the Washington IMG College radio network, here on GoHuskies.com with the exclusive game chat, and on espn3.com) has added zest to this tournament for these formerly forlorn Huskies.
UW officials said as of Monday evening, 24 hours before tipoff, they had sold 6,700 seats for the Huskies' first postseason game against a conference opponent in 46 contests spanning 110 seasons of men's basketball.
Washington had 5,761 at its 76-55 race past Northwestern in the NIT's second round on Friday. Immediately after that game, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar grabbed the arena's public-address microphone to ask for more, even louder support Tuesday night.
"Oh, I expect it to be a really good atmosphere, like a big-time conference game although this is more of a tournament game," Romar said Monday. "I would expect it would be pretty loud in there."
The prospect of a wild rematch is helping take away some of the sting still lingering from Washington eight days ago becoming the first major conference champion to be left out the NCAA tournament.
"I don't think that will go away. In the summer (it will be), "Man, it would have been nice to be in the NCAAs,'" Romar said. "But I do think that we are starting to really catch on to this tournament. This tournament is really catching on with us, I think.
"I don't think we are feeling sorry for ourselves right now that we are not in the NCAA tournament."
Ross sees three simple keys to advancing to the semifinals of college basketball's oldest tournament, which is in its 75th season, and to returning to the "World's Most Famous Arena" where they lost narrowly to Marquette and Duke in December: "Competing. Playing Hard. Playing right."
Above all else, Huskies must defend.
They must run out far more aggressively at and stay closer to the Ducks' potentially lethal scorers. They have been blowing out opponents for the last month-plus.
Beginning with that rout of the Huskies Feb. 9, Oregon is 8-2 and averaging 83.5 points per game. There was talk the Ducks were headed to NCAA tournament -- until Colorado upset them in their first game at the Pac-12 tournament, hours after Oregon State similarly doomed UW's NCAA hopes in Los Angeles on March 8.
Oregon has scored 90 or more four times in the last five games, including the 108 they dropped on Iowa Sunday in the NIT's second round. It was Oregon's most points in more than nine years. The veteran Ducks also had five scorers in double figures in their previous game, a home blowout of LSU.
"When you got all that experience, which is the most in the conference, and you put that together with all the scorers and the talent they have, that makes it a very, very tough team to guard," Romar said.
"Our guys understand that Oregon is a really, really good team."
The last time these teams met, Washington was so bad Romar has joked since that UW could win championships for the next five years yet people will still be asking him, "Yeah, but what happened that time at Oregon?"
The Ducks scorched Washington with 56-percent shooting (31 of 55), a season-high allowed by the Huskies, in the 25-point rout. It was a blowout from the start. The Dawgs failed to close out on outside shooter Garrett Sim (3 for 4 from 3-point range) or challenge inside against leading scorer Devoe Joseph (6 of 13 shooting).
Wroten thinks the Northwestern game, when the Huskies held the potentially potent shooting of Northwestern to 35 percent, shows Washington has improved defensively since Eugene.
"We're not perfect," Wroten said, "but we've come a long way as a team."
Offensively, Washington shot just 36 percent and made just two of 16 3-point shots on Feb. 9 at Oregon. That's how UW ended with a season low-tying 57 points.
"We didn't have any effort going into that game. And it showed," Ross said.
"We're going to come out ready to go (Tuesday)."
They did on New Year's Eve, the last time these teams played in Seattle. Romar thought his Huskies played one of their better defensive games when they beat Oregon 76-60 in the second game of the conference season. UW forced Joseph, the third-leading scorer in the Pac-12 this season at 16.9 points per game, to shoot 1 for 13 for just four points in 34 minutes.
Romar also pointed out that was before the Ducks had fully jelled, as they obviously have since. Oregon has three transfers that contribute heavily: Joseph (from Minnesota), energetic, physical Olu Ashaolou (Louisiana Tech) and 6-foot-11 center Tony Woods (Wake Forest). The Ducks are also in their second year under coach Dana Altman and his staff.
That first meeting in Seattle was also before Huskies sophomore C.J. Wilcox was sidelined for three weeks with a stress fracture in his upper leg, an ache that is still limiting the sharpshooter some. Wilcox was 8 for 11 for 24 points against Oregon on Dec. 31, but just four of 13 against the Ducks last month.
Wilcox has gotten back close to his usual form recently, as evidenced by his 20 points and 7-for-13 shooting night in the second round against Northwestern.
And his Huskies have gotten back into striving for a championship, a week after getting decked by the NCAA's selection committee.
"It's the end of the season. Win or go home," said Wroten, who has shown off his passing instead of scoring in this NIT. "You know, everyone loves New York. Everyone loves to play in a historic arena, Madison Square Garden.
"We're here. We might as well make the most of it. To be able to get a chance to go back is a blessing."