Huskies not acting like champions

SEATTLE - There was no float; there was no ticker-tape parade. There was some remnants of a Ben and Jerry's pint of Chunky Monkey lying around the Lorenzo Romar household, but that was about it. When California lost to Stanford Sunday, it ensured Washington would win the Pac-12 regular season title outright. It was a chance to celebrate a hard-fought crown.

But the Huskies were scarcely talking like champions Tuesday when they met with the media and talked about the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament, which starts Wednesday at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Their first game is Thursday at 12:10 p.m. PT, where UW will play the winner of the Oregon State/Washington State game.

And just like their last road trip to Los Angeles a few days earlier, the atmosphere seemed more like business as usual. Or to be more precise, unfinished business.

"We need to win some games," UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said, matter-of-factly. "I don't think we're a slam dunk for the (NCAA) Tournament. That's how we felt going in the last two years. I'm definitely not saying, 'Look out Pac-12, here we come!' This is a tough, tough tournament. It's going to be very difficult, starting with our first game. I don't know that I can just say that on paper in terms of wins and losses we are the No. 1 seed, but beyond that you have to go play the game. It doesn't mean anything."

His players were very much on that same page, talking more about motivation and how tough they expect the Pac-12 Tournament will be.

"We're glad we're the No. 1 seed, but every game is just as important as the other one," said sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox. "It doesn't matter who we play, it's going to be a tough game. Any team can beat any team in this tournament, so I don't think the No. 1 seed is that big of a deal. I feel like the teams we match up with, it's going to be a tough deal either way."

"We're never satisfied, even if we are a lock in the NCAA Tournament," added Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Tony Wroten. "We got to play like we got to win or we're not in. We're going to take it as we got to win every game."

Wroten and teammate Terrence Ross were in the Pac-12 Player of the Year race, but eventually lost out to California's Jorge Gutierrez. It's not the first time that's happened to Washington; last year Isaiah Thomas lost out to Arizona's Derrick Williams, and in 2010, Quincy Pondexter missed out on Player of the Year honors to another Golden Bear, guard Jerome Randle.

Will the Huskies feel a little snubbed, and if so will that turn into big Pac-12 Tournament performances? Romar said that it's happened that way in the past.

"I remember with Quincy Pondexter, he was on a mission," he said. "Isaiah Thomas had a pretty good tournament last year. A lot of times it can fuel guys' fire."

Listening to the national Bracketologists - those analysts whose sole job is to accurately predict how the final NCAA Tournament bracket will look like - Washington still has work to do despite winning the conference outright with a 14-4 league record. Perhaps the national snub might also put some extra gas in the Huskies' tank.

"I see us getting more than one bid," Romar said, throwing his own Big Dance prediction into the hat. "When it's all said and done, I think Cal is in for sure and I think Oregon is making a strong push. I just think there's a couple other options in there. This is not the first time the so-called experts have said this would be a one-bid league, and there were more than that when it was all said and done."

There are a plethora of reasons for why the pundits have the Pac-12 at the bottom of the college basketball pig pile; They are statistically the worst power conference in the country, and it's not close. In some RPI polls, the Pac-12 is not even considered one of the top-10 conferences in college basketball, with mid-major leagues like the Mountain West Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, and the West Coast Conference listed ahead of the Pac-12 in terms of relative strength and also based on what the league did - or more importantly didn't do - to show themselves as what they are billed as - the Conference of Champions.

To add insult to injury, both Washington and California had a chance to control their own destiny as the games were being played out this past weekend, but neither team took advantage of their respective situations. The Huskies lost by six at UCLA, while Cal succumbed to Stanford during their Senior Day.

On top of that, Arizona - who was fighting tooth and nail to get into the NCAA conversation, completely dropped the ball by losing to lowly Arizona State on Saturday.

So come Monday, what was the media's response to the conference's weekend showing? It was just more of the same, showing how weak and toothless the Pac-12 really is. But the reality is that if Wisconsin lost at Minnesota or NCAA bubble team Northwestern lost to a reeling Illinois squad, analysts would have been falling all over themselves in talking up the Big 10 and how deep and competitive the conference is from top to bottom. Same would have gone for the Big East if West Virginia had lost their Backyard Brawl at Pitt, or if Virginia had failed to seal the deal at Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But for three above average Pac-12 teams to suffer similar fates, it's a much different story simply because the league has a poor non-conference resume.

Romar disagrees with the assessment, as well as the reasons why.

"I think it's unfair," he said, for starters. "Maybe from a distance when you look at it, that's the way they see it. But I know UCLA is playing really good basketball right now, and it was a rivalry game for both Stanford/Cal and Arizona/Arizona State. You never know what's going to happen. But from the outside looking in, you don't dissect it to that degree."

"If the games were switched and if we would have played on Sunday and Cal and Stanford played on Saturday and Stanford won…well, people would have said (UW) won it. They clinched it, it's over. Then we played our Sunday game, and maybe because you knew you had it won, maybe you just didn't play as hard. Maybe that would have been the question instead of we backed in. In '05, we were playing Stanford, and if we would have won the game we would have tied with Arizona and we would have been co-champs. We lost, and we were a No. 1 seed in the (NCAA) Tournament that year. We had a higher seed than Arizona, but I don't remember hearing anyone saying Arizona backed into that title."

As in life, it's all a matter of timing. If Washington had beaten Nevada in Reno and hadn't been the victim of a Jae Crowder bomb in the waning seconds against Marquette at Madison Square Garden, all of this speculation would have been rendered useless. But with the lack of a top non-conference win acting like an invisible blemish on UW's post-season resume, the Huskies apparently are paying the price for being the Kings of Poop Island.

"If we could start over and play the non-conference schedule again, they'd see something different," Romar said, convinced that a quality non-conference win would have just been a formality if this current group of Huskies had shown up earlier in the season. "But we can't go back and do it. Teams are just different than how they were in November and December. Teams have matured. (Oregon's) Devoe Joseph, an All-Conference player, wasn't playing in the pre-season for most of their games. UCLA went through its inner struggles during that time. That's not the same team we played the other day. I just think teams are different now."

After getting demolished at Oregon, Washington had to grow up in a hurry, and even though the road victories against Oregon State, Washington State and USC aren't going to dot their team sheet with quality wins, they are road wins nonetheless. And they came at a time where another loss could have proven to be a death blow.

But no matter; as long as the experts think Washington has to win more games in order to secure their ticket to the post-season, they'll do it. It happened the last two years, and the Huskies will approach this Pac-12 Tournament with the same mindset, even if they have a much better conference resume to fall back on if they slip up.

That's why these Huskies are taking a cue from the UW teams of the last two years. They aren't acting like champions because being champions right now doesn't get them anywhere. In any other year, it would hold cache; it would virtually guarantee them passage to the Big Dance. But with perception apparently mirroring reality, the perception right now is that Washington needs to do more to punch their post-season ticket.

If it's going to take a third straight Pac-12 Tournament title to shut up the conference's critics, then that's what UW will do. They have the players that have done it before, and they have the talent to make just such a run. They know the way and their motivation is quite clear.

"We want to win the Tournament to seal it," senior captain Darnell Gant said, matter-of-factly.

"There is definitely a target on our back," added Wroten. "It's win or go home so everyone is going to play like it's their last game."


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