Oregon beat Iowa on Sunday in the highest scoring game in Division I basketball this year 108-97 to set up a rubbermatch between the Washington Huskies and the Ducks for the right to play in Madison Square Garden in New York City in the NIT semi-finals. If that wasn’t enough motivation, there is also the fact that the Huskies were absolutely embarrassed in Eugene on February 9th 82-57 in what was probably their worst loss of the season (with South Dakota State and Saint Louis being right behind it). What made the Oregon loss particularly bad was that not only did they look horrible in that game, but they lost a lot of respect nationally and many think that game, more than the close losses at UCLA and to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament, was the real death nail in the coffin of their NCAA tournament hopes.
So, now the Huskies have their shot at redemption at Hec Ed on Tuesday at 6pm. To me, this truly is the key game of the season in measuring the character of this current squad. In other games, with so much on the line, the Huskies have fallen flat on their faces. It is primarily their inability to rise to the occasion that has left this team in the NIT to begin with.
After their big win over Northwestern, the Huskies players and many observers said they played their most complete game of the season. Is the chemistry right now? Are these players all on the same page, with the same goals? Tony Wroten publicly stated his desire to play Oregon, which is somewhat rare in major sports when the players usually hide their real desires and say something like “It doesn’t matter, we’ll play whoever we get”.
But, there will certainly be a measure of redemption if the Huskies make it to Madison Square Garden. They will have a chance to erase some of the memories of losing two tight games against very good opponents back in early December. Win either of them and the Huskies probably would have made the NCAA tournament. But, just making it to NYC wouldn’t necessarily be vindication for a season of “what could have been”. There are plenty of cases of teams using a strong NIT performance as a springboard to an amazing run to the NCAA tournament the next year. However, sometimes the NIT is simply a last hurrah for a group of veteran players. See Washington State making it to NYC last year and then losing Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto and finishing below .500 this year.
Which of these will it be for the Huskies?
Well, it’s really hard to say at this point. One reason is that this could be the last time Husky fans see Tony Wroten and Terrance Ross in a Husky uniform, to go along with, 5th year senior Darnell Gant. If this is the last time these three players play at Hec Ed in their careers, one would hope they take it personally and go out with a win. What the Huskies may or may not look like next year, based on what Wroten and Ross decide to do will be discussed in detail after the season. But, there will be plenty of fans at Hec Ed and watching on TV thinking about that very possibility. If Husky fans are to consider this season to be a success after the massive disappointment of being left out of the NCAA tournament, then these players need to take it upon themselves to beat hated arch-rival Oregon and make it to New York City.
A loss here and it will only add insult to injury and I believe you have to conclude that this season was a failure. Sure, they won a Pac-12 regular season championship. But, will you really look up at the rafters at that championship banner with pride if you know that not only did they miss the NCAA tournament, but if they also lost two out of three to Oregon Ducks (with two of those games at home)? Can you be proud knowing they couldn’t win a game in the conference tournament knowing what was at stake? Knowing they could not beat South Dakota State at home?
This game means everything about how Husky fans can look back at the season. Will it be one of pride or frustration. Leaving Seattle with a victory and knowing they are on their way to Madison Square Garden would do wonders for the perception of how this season went. The Huskies have a chance at redemption on Tuesday. Let’s see if they have the character to achieve it.