The Washington Huskies look on their way to their 4th consecutive NCAA tournament, their 7th appearance in the last 9 years. Some will say they aren’t yet in the field, but barring a total collapse I expect the Huskies to be invited to the big dance.
In those 7 NCAA tournament berths, the Huskies have reached the Sweet 16 three different times, most recently in 2010, but Washington never passed the round of 16 to get into the regional final.
Many fans will consider reaching the Sweet 16 an accomplishment, and it is a feat that every team should strive for, but reaching the Sweet 16 has become a plateau for Romar and the Huskies. The last time Washington got further in the tournament was in 1953.
What’s the reason for the Huskies struggles in the NCAA tournament? There could be many factors, one being that they’re on the road, where they’ve historically struggled. Having to win more than 2 games in a row on the road, against tough opponents is too much for a team that does its best work in Seattle.
Depth is often times a problem in the NCAA tournament, playing in must win games every time out is extremely strenuous, but the Huskies have had deep benches the last few years, but still haven’t been able to get over the hump.
The Huskies have even gone into the NCAA tournament riding strong closing weeks in both 2009 and 2010, and last year they rode the high of winning an emotional Pac10 tournament.
So what is it that keeps the Huskies from being able to get passed the Sweet 16, and is there any reason to believe that this year is different?
To answer the second question, yes, this year has been different than years past. Not because the conference is down, or the incredible turnaround the team has made since their putrid non-conference play.
But rather the style or lack thereof that the Huskies are winning games is different this year.
Husky fans have been spoiled into seeing Washington run all over opponents in recent years; when the Huskies were winning, it was rarely close. The close games the Huskies were in generally resulted in them losing. Taking a look last year, the Huskies were 5-10 in games decided by single digits and 19-1 in games decided by 10 points or more. This year, they are 10-5 in games decided by single digits and 10-3 in games decided by 10 or more points.
The Huskies were used to blowing by teams in years past, but come tournament time, there are no easy games. When push came to shove, the Huskies had no answer for their opponents.
It’s been written after many games this season that the Huskies won in ugly fashion, but that wins are wins. This was seen as a negative thing, that the Huskies should be winning with more style points. I argue that tough wins are far more helpful than blowout wins, that the Huskies have learned how to grind out wins.
A great example of this is a game that was in the end decided by 28 points but the trend of the game was that it was a much closer game. That was at home against USC, a game where many expected a high flying show where the Huskies dominated from start to finish, as they have in years past. Instead, the Huskies slowly wore down USC, playing a different brand of basketball, but still controlling the game.
The lead grew and grew and in the second half the game just got out of control. It showed a strong willed Husky team to wait nearly 30 minutes before really turning a game, against a horrible opponent, into a blowout.
Husky teams in years past that may have been in the same situation likely would’ve won the game as well, but I do not think they could’ve hung through the frustration of a close game like that.
This team has the ability to put up points in a hurry; guys like Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox can score as well as anyone in the country, so no lead is ever too much to overcome. This team obviously knows that and stays in games and pulls out the close wins, come tournament time they will be in close games and they have the experience to know what to do. Of their five single digit losses, three came in a week; two were against top 10 opponents.
An immature team at the time that didn’t know how to win didn’t win; it’s not much of a surprise. But the growth has been clear and they’ve learned what it takes to beat teams when they’re not playing their A game.
That’s what it takes to make a run in the NCAA tournament, and that’s why this year should be different for the Huskies. They not only have the talent this year, but also the will to win the tight games.
Follow Lawrence on Twitter @AMitchellReport