The stretch run is upon us and the Huskies are sitting firmly upon the NCAA Tournament bubble. What must they do to ensure a spot in the field of 68, or what will their possible falters result in? Let’s take a closer look.
I think we can all agree that when the Dawgs entered Pac-12 play with the lackluster record of 6-5, there was the feeling that this year could be a long one. We saw a lack of leadership, disorganization, and not playing to the high potential that is expected of by this team. Some of these answers still have not been addressed, but one thing we know for sure is that the Huskies are 12-3 in conference, which is good enough to be tied for first place. So good even, that it is only the second time under Lorenzo Romar that the Huskies have posted that record through fifteen conference games. The only other time was in the ’04-’05 season when Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, and Brandon Roy (to name a few) led the team to a 29-6 record and a number one seed in the tournament.
So what’s the difference between teams you might ask? It’s simple and very clear. Non-conference play. In that impressive ’04-’05 season, the Huskies boasted a 10-1 non-conference record, with their only loss coming at the hands of Gonzaga over at the McCarthy Center. But, that season the Dawgs played a total of zero ranked teams in non-conference play. As a matter of fact, they only played one ranked team all season: Arizona, who was ranked sixth both times the teams matched up.
This season the young Huskies have played a total of two ranked teams, Marquette and Duke, who they lost to by a combined total of eight points. Other non-conference losses were at Saint Louis, at Nevada, and at home to South Dakota State. Now I know these are the type of games that our team in Purple should be winning, but have you seen where these teams are now after the season has almost fully been played out? Saint Louis is 22-5 and in second place in an impressive Atlantic 10 conference. They even are ranked 21st in RPI and 9th in the ESPN Power Index; almost a lock for an at-large bid if need be. Nevada is also sitting nicely at 22-5, and in first place in the WAC. If everything goes to plan, they will take the automatic bid into the tournament. Lastly is South Dakota St., which looked like an absolutely terrible loss at the time, but now doesn’t look as bad. Yes, we are talking about a team named the Jackrabbits from the (unusually good) Summit League, but they are a respectable 22-7 and have a shot at taking down conference leader Oral Roberts in the conference tournament for an automatic bid.
So, yes it was a disappointing way to enter conference play for the Huskies, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time. Just imagine if the Dawgs were able to take those two games at the Garden against Marquette and Duke, and then take even just one of the three other losses against Nevada, South Dakota State, and Saint Louis. You would be looking at a team with a 22-5 record. With three regular season games left, as the current Huskies have, the ’04-’05 team was 22-4 with only one win against a ranked opponent, and were ranked 9th in the country. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, the young pups could have easily been ranked at this point and would be comfortably sitting in the projected tournament field. Surprisingly, that’s how close they were to a great season, rather than just an average one. It’s amazing what two or three games can do for a team.
What-ifs aside, the Dawgs have three more conference games left (@WSU, @USC, @UCLA), and you should expect them to take at least two of those, if not all of them. If they do sweep the remaining schedule, the Dawgs could very well be conference champs. A game to watch for is the California @ Colorado game on 2/26. Colorado is a tough team at home and they could open the door for the Huskies to take the outright title for the conference. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, including the conference tournament, so it will be fun (and nerve-racking) to see how this race comes down to the wire. But first, the Huskies have to take care of business in Pullman this Saturday. As always, Go Dawgs.