The thing I hate most about college basketball is that your season is essentially defined by how you’re ranked going into that season. It’s hard to recover from something like that! Take a team like the Huskies, for instance. They came into the 2015/2016 season predicted to be 11th out of 12 teams in the conference. How do you come back from that? Well, you’ve gotta beat each and every bad team in your non-conference schedule, and ideally you’ve gotta beat all the good teams too. You essentially have to be perfect in the non-conference slate to get recognized and get any respect from the world of college basketball.
The problem with that – especially if you’re the Huskies, and you’re breaking in 9,000 incoming Freshmen or transfers – is that it takes time to gel as a basketball team. How you look in the first few weeks will be drastically different from how you look in the last few weeks. But, if you stumble in that non-conference schedule – like the Huskies did, particularly at home to Oakland and UC Santa Barbara – there’s just no making that up.
Now, take UCLA, who also lost 4 games in their non-conference slate. As they were ranked very highly coming into the season, even though they lost to the likes of Monmouth and Wake Forest, and even though they’ve lost 4 of their first 7 Pac-12 games, they have a MUCH better chance of cracking the NCAA Tourney, all because they have a couple of impressive non-conference wins, and because they were thought of very highly coming into the season.
For a struggling program to pick itself up out of the doldrums, you really have to be good for TWO seasons. In the first season, you have to defy expectations by playing quality ball, and maybe beating a couple of superior opponents. Then, if you can manage to retain most of your quality players (without them leaving in a 1 & Done scenario), you’ll start to be thought of as a quality team going into Year 2. Getting that pre-season ranking is key. We just gotta hope some of these Freshmen don’t play TOO well that they decide to leave for the NBA.
The Huskies are getting jammed on all sides this year, but they’re also not doing themselves any favors. As far as our non-conference slate is concerned, the best team we beat was a middling Texas team that’s probably going nowhere. We would also go on to lose to that same middling Texas team in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Our most crucial game of the season was also in that very same tournament, against Gonzaga, where we were resoundingly beaten by a better basketball team, that has gone on to fall on some hard times of late. Other than the Zags, the Huskies didn’t really even HAVE any good teams in their non-conference schedule, which makes the three other losses especially revolting.
The Huskies opened Pac-12 play with three straight wins, two of them in overtime. We beat UCLA to knock them out of the Top 25, then followed that up a couple days later with a hard-fought victory over a very good Trojans team. Beating the Cougs over in Pullman left everyone dreaming a little big. Maybe it WOULD be possible for the Huskies to overcome their horrific non-conference performance!
That’s when we suffered a 32-point beatdown in Arizona to the Wildcats. That essentially killed all momentum, and it wouldn’t even matter that we recovered to beat the Sun Devils and the Colorado Buffaloes the next two games, as everyone kept pointing to that Arizona game as proof positive that this Husky team just can’t beat anyone good.
Then came last night’s game against the Utes. A victory would’ve pushed us to 6-1 in conference, with sole possession of first place by a full game. The whole game was a back-and-forth affair, with neither team taking too big of a lead throughout. In the end, the Utes had a little more poise, a little better execution, and they withstood our clear athletic advantage to take the 5-point overtime win. That game was as close to a Must Win as they get in the last week of January. Essentially, the Huskies can’t afford any more stumbles against any more mediocre programs. To be taken seriously as an At Large team, the Huskies probably have to win the conference regular season title AND win it with a remarkable conference record (like, no more than 3 defeats). The loss to the Utes puts us at 2 defeats already, with road games against the L.A. schools, the Mountain schools, and the Oregon schools (and home games against the Arizona schools, Bay Area schools, and Wazzu).
You can argue there’s a lot of season left to play, but there are precious few opportunities for the Huskies to make an impact upon their “significant wins”. Right now, the Huskies have beaten exactly one Top 25 team, and that’s USC (and they weren’t even in the Top 25 at the time; if you want to count those teams, then I guess you can count UCLA, but we’ll have to see if they ever recover from this tailspin they’re in). And, the problem with the Pac-12 is that it’s STILL not well respected, with only the two teams ranked in the Top 25. Where the Pac-12 does recover is the fact that 11 of 12 teams are ranked in the Top 60 in RPI. In that sense, the Huskies beat two Top 30 RPI teams, in USC and Colorado. But, we’ll see where everyone shakes out by season’s end.
I’m not at the point now where it’s Winning The Pac-12 Tourney Or Bust for the Huskies, but they’re going to have to pick up their overall execution. Ideally, the Huskies will split the games against the L.A. schools this weekend (ideally, with the victory coming over the Trojans), and the Huskies MUST beat Arizona when they play at Hec-Ed in a couple weeks. From that point onward, we gotta look long and hard at winning out. That game down in Eugene against the Ducks at the end of February might be the most important of all the remaining games, as they’re currently sitting with an RPI of 7, and are tied with us for the lead in the Pac-12.
I’ll be looking to talk some more Huskies this week. Suffice it to say, I’m thrilled with what Lorenzo Romar and company have brought us so far.