Believe It Or Not, Huskies Go For a National Title
March 26, 2012
Photo Gallery of NYC trip
By Gregg Bell
NEW YORK - The Huskies' players have spent some of their second trip this season to New York inside Ripley's Believe It Or Not, just off Times Square.
That fits UW's wildly unpredictable, unprecedented season.
So does this: The guys who in less than a month went from losing by 25 at Oregon to outright league champions for the second time in 59 years - who went from snubbed out of the NCAA tournament to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in two, refreshing weeks -- walked into a Black Hole. They walked a 15-foot long walkway into tube of rotating darkness and momentarily lost their bearings -- much like they did when they were 6-5 in the non-conference season, or when they went one-and-done in the Pac-12 tournament.
Just like they did then, the Huskies emerged.
Seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye stood next to a statue of the man said to be the world's tallest, 8-feet-11 Robert Wadlow. Instead of being the tallest Husky, Aziz looked more like Isaiah Thomas next to the Illinois native who died at 1940 at age 22. The players cracked up minutes later as they watched on a television monitor as N'Diaye was prone inside a Mission: Impossible exhibit. Like a towering Tom Cruise, the junior center and native of Senegal crawled under a field of intersecting laser beams. N'Diaye was nimble, tripping off just six beams while slinking the approximately 20-foot field and back. (Scott Suggs, the senior redshirting after breaking his foot in October, tripped a team-low two beams, by the way.)
The mission Tuesday night is not as unbelievable or impossible, yet it is still challenging: Beat surging Minnesota (22-14) Tuesday beginning at about 6:15 p.m. Pacific time, and the top-seeded Huskies (24-10) will play Thursday for the oldest tournament championship in college basketball inside "The World's Most Famous Arena."
It will be on the Washington IMG College radio network, espn3.com and here on GoHuskies.com with the exclusive chat, analysis and play-by-play courtside.
"We are in New York, playing for a national championship in the NIT. Our guys are pretty excited," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "We have a group of guys that are pretty competitive and were just able to turn the page."
That would the huge page that was the NCAA tournament. Two weeks ago its selection committee made UW the first champion of a major conference to be left out of the men's national basketball championship derby.
At Monday's practice at Baruch College on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan the Dawgs soared, sprinted and banged for two hours. Tony Wroten dunked. Terrence Ross swished jumpers and deflected passes in a spirited scrimmage. Austin Seferian-Jenkins ran into a padded, cinder-block wall to chase down a loose ball. N'Diaye angrily swatted teammates' shots.
The energy 6½ months into this long, up-and-down season showed these Huskies are here to not just gain but earn the championship of the 75th NIT - plus more national respect.
Washington's road to the latter hasn't exactly been an expressway. It took a detour from a loss to Oregon State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles, through the ensuing national debate on Pac-12 hoops and whether UW deserved a bid to the NCAAs, through three increasingly rousing wins in Seattle over Texas-Arlington, Northwestern and Oregon in this NIT - and now to this return to New York City, where Washington lost narrowly to Marquette and Duke in December. But the outright winners of the Pac-12's regular-season season are finally earning that respect.
"Washington has one of the best programs in the West, and really the country," said Fran Fraschilla, the former coach of Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico. He will call Huskies-Minnesota on ESPN2 with Mike Patrick and Bill Raftery.
The UW's first postseason game at The Garden since the 1936 U.S. Olympic trials will be the second semifinal Tuesday night, 20 minutes after Stanford and Massachusetts finish.
"We want to show our respect for the NIT, the history of the NIT, by playing the right way," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said of his Golden Gophers.
"Hopefully we will play the right way against a very good Washington team."
Minutes before Smith said that, Romar looked like the Mayor of this NIT during the tournament's luncheon at the Marriott Marquis hotel at Times Square.
Romar traded hugs and smiles with Smith, a man he considers a mentor. He calls the 60-year-old Smith "just a great guy." The two have never faced each other over their combined 38 seasons as college head coaches -- from Pepperdine to Saint Louis to UW for Romar, and from Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota for Smith. But Romar has always admired Smith for being an engaging leader at national coaches' tours, conventions and meetings.
"Tubby, seriously, is one of the most enjoyable guys to be around. We go on the Nike trips with the coaches and he's in on the egg tosses, if it requires putting on makeup and being a clown he'll go do that. Whatever. He's all for the team. He's just a great guy to be around. He's one of my favorite, favorite coaches in the entire NCAA."
Romar then laughed with Minnesota's radio network interviewer, who used to cover him when Romar was the coach at Saint Louis in the early 2000s.
Romar did a regular radio show after games while leading the Billikens, as he does now at UW. A certain "George from Grandview," a St. Louis suburb, kept calling Romar's show and criticizing the coach and his team.
After a few weeks of this static, Romar got the phone number from the radio producer. The coach then had a little chat with "George from Grandview."
Following the next game, George was on the line yet again. The radio producer asked Romar off the air if the coach really wanted to take the call from the critic. Romar flashed his thumb up.
"Great job, Coach! You guys looked great!" George raved over the air, after obviously getting a "pep talk" from the charming Romar.
The key to Romar's current team looking great against Minnesota will be the key to most Huskies games.
"The biggest thing for us is how we play defense," said Washington leading scorer Terrence Ross, who has scorched the NIT with an average of 26.3 points over three games. "The offense will take care of itself. It's the defense that will keep us in the game."
Minnesota has won three times by an average of 11 points, becoming the fifth team in the NIT's three-quarters of a century to reach the semifinals via three road wins. Thirteen of the Gophers' 14 losses this season have come to teams that made the postseason. Nine of those losses have come against NCAA tournament teams, and six came against teams that made this past weekend's Sweet 16.
Romar is impressed with how well Minnesota plays together, and how they have rallied around each other following the season-ending injury in November to senior forward Trevor Nbakwe, a preseason All-American. Then senior big man Ralph Sampson III got hurt. His status for Tuesday is uncertain.
Minnesota has played seven guys who had zero games of experience with the Gophers entering this season: three true freshman, two redshirt freshman and two junior-college transfers.
Junior forward Rodney Williams has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games. It's the first time a Gopher has done that in nine seasons.
So the Huskies know their task. And they know their stage.
They headed to an NIT dinner Monday night at the Loeb Boathouse along The Lake inside Central Park relishing this chance at the first national championship in 110 seasons of Husky basketball.
"We are enjoying the moment here," Romar said. "We think it's very special."