Huskies Need to Find Finishing Touch

SEATTLE - As the games dwindle down to nothing, Washington's path becomes clearer and clearer; win out and all their problems are solved. It may seem simple to say that, but theoretically even if they go 3-0 to finish their regular season, their post-season safety is not secure. Because the only Pac-12 automatic qualifier comes via the conference tournament champion, UW can't rest easy.

"You can only hope Senior Day turns out this way," Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said moments after the Huskies' 79-70 win over Arizona to finish out UW's home regular-season campaign 8-1. "It's not how it turned out for us last year. It was great to see those guys go out with a victory. We put together 40 minutes today. I thought our guys did a tremendous job today of playing Husky Basketball."

"I feel like it was huge," added Darnell Gant, one of the seniors that was feted on Saturday. "We took care of the rest of our games at home, and now we'll get ready on the road. That gives us momentum."

And Washington will need all the momentum they can muster, at least if you listen to the various bracketologists out there whose job it is to predict the eventual NCAA Tournament brackets. They could be in a play-in battle to eventually face No. 4-seed Wisconsin in Portland, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi. To add a further twist to that potential scenario, a match-up with in-state power Gonzaga in the round of 32 could be in the offing if Washington took care of the Badgers.

The win over the Wildcats was arguably Washington's second 'resume-builder' for the NCAA Tournament to consider. The first one was their win over Arizona in Tucson on January 29th. "I think it's big," Romar said of the season sweep over the 'Cats. "I think they are respected, and I think their resume is respected and valued - so I think that definitely helps us. That team is tough to deal with, they are so aggressive and physical. And they don't make a whole lot of mistakes."

"Hopefully," Gant added, with just a bit more reservation. "I feel like we've done a good job of maintaining. If we keep this momentum up, we can make it to the NCAA Tournament. I feel like we have to take it like our backs are against the wall. Certain times we let our foot off the gas and we let up on defense and they go on runs. We can't do that."

It took a senior to nail it, but Darnell did it right there - Washington's backs are still up against the wall, no matter how well the team is starting to play. According to Romar, outside of the second half against Arizona State Thursday, the team has played the way he knew they were capable of playing.

"I think we're playing better, and with three games to go you want to be at your best," he said. "It's crazy how sports are; now it's let's see how we do on the road. We just finished this, but you can't rest on your laurels. You have to continue to get better."

If you are a Washington fan, you have to be buoyed by the recent run of form. The Oregon game notwithstanding, this is what Romar-coached teams have done in the past, especially ones littered with youth at key positions of power; they've found their identity during the season and then turned it on at the end once roles were accepted and embraced without hesitation. Against Arizona, they did a better job of running their motion offense and being aggressive cutting to the basket, which opened up other options. Defensively, they are getting deflections, leading to more steals and breaking down of set plays for the opposition.

At 12-3, the Huskies have three road games to cap off a remarkable conference regular season. To put that mark in perspective, there's only been one other Romar-coached UW team that has found themselves at a similar point heading into their last three league games; 2005. And that was a team who lost at Arizona by nine and Oregon State by 17. They also ended up being the only NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in the history of the program. Considering this current group was not only nowhere near as heralded as that team was - they were picked fourth in the league by the pundits, for instance - that makes this run even more remarkable. To finish this thing out as the best conference team Romar has ever had, it means they have to do the near-impossible; win three-straight on the road. Washington has only done that twice since Romar joined up before the 2003 season, the latest coming in 2010 when they won in Pullman and then swept the Oregon schools to eventually lose to West Virginia in the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

To find the blueprint this team is using, you have to look at that 2010 team - who won eight of their final 10 conference games, and the 2004 team, who came out of nowhere after losing their first five conference games to go 12-1 down the stretch (including a regular-season ending win over No. 1 Stanford) to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. It was the first of six tickets Romar has punched to the Big Dance since coming to Montlake. With both those teams, you always felt like they were playing their best basketball, and it's no different with this team. They'll need the week to get healthy, but if they play against Washington State Saturday with their full compliment, they should be tough to beat.

"Of course our team feels like we have, but we can do a lot more," said guard Terrence Ross, who torched Arizona for 25 Saturday amid chants of 'One More Year!'. "The sky's the limit for us, and we can still show anybody that we can go and play with the best of them."

A win over the Cougars would give them another important road win, as well as push them to 20 wins overall. In the past, 20 wins has been a solid benchmark for power conference teams when it comes to NCAA post-season eligibility. It doesn't guarantee anything, but there's one more factor to consider; a win over WSU pushes Big Mo even more in Washington's favor, and the Huskies shouldn't have a problem taking care of hapless USC the following Thursday in Los Angeles.

Then it all comes down to UCLA, with everything to play for.

Strap on your seat belts, Husky fans - it's going to be a bumpy ride. Like watching a horror movie with your hands over your face sneaking a quick peek from time to time, you're ultimately compelled to watch Washington play - because they are capable of doing just about anything. They have the talent to roll through these last three games without a sweat, but that's not been their modus operandi of late, especially on the road.

Teams have tried successfully to take away UW's speed and transition offense by not crashing boards and getting back on defense, and the Huskies have slowly, but surely, turned into a competent half-court team. They don't mind the grind, and in some ways it's helped them develop the patience required to hang on when the road takes its toll.

And they will be tested in that regard. Washington State, who just crushed Arizona State and limited them to eight first-half points (that's not a typo), will be motivated beyond belief to do the same to their in-state rivals. Winning in Pullman has never been a given, and Romar will have enough teaching moments from the final 20 minutes in their own game versus the Sun Devils to push buttons.

Whether or not he's pushed the right ones will be found out soon enough when the Huskies hit Friel Court on Saturday. Top Stories