The Washington Huskies are about to become the first Big Six major conference regular season champion ever to be not selected to the NCAA tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985. And, frankly they deserve to be left out after losing yet another lead late in a game to a team definitely NOT going to the NCAA tournament. Here you have a team without any Top-50 victories (outside of maybe Oregon at 49), an RPI in the upper-50’s, some bad losses (see at Oregon and at home to South Dakota State), and far too many close wins against mediocre or even bad teams.
The Washington Huskies luck simply ran out on them. After barely beating Arizona State in Tempe (RPI 248), barely beating Oregon State in Corvallis, having to come from behind late to barely beat WSU twice, having to come from behind to beat UCLA in Seattle, and even having a scare from Seattle U, it just seemed like the percentages would catch up with the Huskies. Instead of these close games building character, it just kept them in the conversation longer. But, knowing a Pac-12 championship was on the line against UCLA last week, the Huskies blew a lead late and lost it. Only serendipity allowed them to still claim the title when California dropped two in a row for the first time all season.
Then, with all the marbles on the line, the Huskies put themselves in a hole against Oregon State with a 13 point halftime deficit. But, when they came roaring back in the 2nd half, I think those players and many fans felt like the threat had passed when the Huskies were up 6 with just 3 minutes to go. I could almost see the confidence (or cockiness) enter the minds of the Husky players when they took the lead. They felt they had it in the bag. But, as with UCLA, the Huskies did not finish strong. Tony Wroten (who had been 9-11 from the FT line earlier) missed four free throws late. C.J. Wilcox missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Terrance Ross missed two as well. An Achilles’ heel of Husky basketball for the past several years reared it’s ugly head. Boy would like love to see Lorenzo Romar emphasize free throw shooting from the beginning of the season sometime.
As big of a game as Tony Wroten was having (a UW freshman record of 29 points), he was not the one to be handling the ball late in the game with everything on the line. Oregon State smartly played him aggressively and forced him to the line to shoot free throws. His season average did not lie. In the final minutes, no one other than Gaddy or Wilcox should have had the ball in their hands unless they were passing to an open guy. Once again we are forced to ask about Lorenzo Romar’s late game decision making. His system may be tremendous in general, but his situation-specific X’s and O’s remains suspect.
In the end, the Huskies have left themselves sitting on the edge of the bubble and will be sweating come Selection Sunday. Will the NCAA tournament selection committee reward them for winning the outright conference title? Will they want to avoid the precedent of having a Big Six major conference winner left out? If so, I doubt the Huskies would get anything better than the #12 seed play-in game. If they get that play-in game, consider it a gift.
But, the NCAA has a backup plan for such situations…It’s called the NIT. Every regular season conference title winner is guaranteed a spot in the NIT. The Huskies will get the chance to play against some of those mid-major or low-major winners who lost in their conference tournament like Bucknell, Mississippi Valley State, and Savannah State. How fitting… The Huskies will certainly have the most NBA-caliber talent of any team in the NIT.
You can argue you all you want about them being a “young” team, team chemistry, etc. But, I am sorry. If you can’t beat Oregon State (7-11 in Pac-12) in the conference quarter-finals knowing how much was on the line, you don’t deserve to go to the Big Dance. The Huskies had their chances to wrap up an at-large slot, but failed to hold onto leads in both of their final two games. But, perhaps we can look at the bright side. They will probably get to host a game or two of the NIT at Hec Ed. Seattle-area fans will get a chance to see Tony Wroten and Terrance Ross one last time before they head off to the NBA draft. At least, unlike the Spencer Hawes situation when the Huskies were surprisingly denied a spot in the NIT, this time they are guaranteed at least one more game.
Will the motivation be there? Will the fans care? Will it be a repeat of the 2008 CBI first round loss to Valparaiso? And, as for what happens next year without Ross and Wroten? Well, that’s for another post…