NIT a matter of motivation for UW

SEATTLE - NIT, come on down. Like Miss Congeniality, the National Invitation Tournament is like the beauty pageant contestant you don't have a bad word for but doesn't get you all that excited. Even in the 1960's, the NIT used to be just as important as the NCAA Tournament, but no longer. Today it has the feeling of sloppy seconds to those clearly yearning for that coveted Big Dance card.

That's why Tuesday's first round NIT matchup between the No. 1 seed Washington Huskies and No. 8 seed UT-Arlington Mavericks might be Lorenzo Romar's toughest coaching job of the year - and it will have nothing to do with what happens on the court. Everything will need to take place between the ears of his players to get them right after the heartbreak of not making it into the NCAA Tournament. He is adamant that these downcast Dawgs will not be feeling sorry for themselves come Tuesday night.

"We're not going to be one of those teams. We may still feel like that today, but come 7 pm tomorrow we won't be feeling like that - they'll be motivated to play," the Washington head coach said Monday. "I think I understand our team."

He also admitted that on Sunday, his players thought they were moving on to the mayhem that is March Madness, despite tripping all over themselves last Thursday in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament to Oregon State.

Darnell Gant was not one of those players.

"I was already in a bad mood," the senior forward said, his dream of becoming Washington's first player to play in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments blown to smithereens. "I already knew we weren't going to make it. It wasn't like we thought we were in and we didn't get called, so everybody started crying; I felt like everybody expected it. We knew the NIT was next. It sucks. You try to hold your emotions as best you can."

Terrence Ross said the NIT felt like a 'consolation prize' to him, and Tony Wroten said that it was obviously not the situation the Huskies wanted. "We did it to ourselves," the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year said, matter-of-factly.

So that leaves UW with two choices; take to arms and go after the NIT crown with all the gusto of a deep NCAA Tournament run - or take their ball and finish a once-promising season with their tails tucked firmly between their legs.

Romar believes these Hoop Dawgs have plenty of fight still left in them.

"All of our guys talk about their love of the game, their passion for the game of basketball," he said. "This is not a benefit game; this is not a celebrity game, a charity game that we're about to play. This is the NIT, where you have a chance to go back and play in the (Madison Square) Garden again if you're successful enough. If you're passionate about basketball, when you get past what just happened about not being in the NCAA Tournament, then you have to get up for this. So it's not just about maturity as far as I'm concerned; if you love the game, you've got another opportunity to go play."

And that really should be enough motivation for the Pac-12 regular-season champions. But if they needed more, Wroten was more than happy to spell it out. In his dream scenario, the Huskies would go back to New York City, win the NIT, and they could take a picture of their celebration and mail it with a Thank You card to the NCAA Selection Committee.

"This should give us more motivation to win it, to show the committee that we deserved to be in (the NCAA Tournament)," he said.

Wroten has plenty of reasons for finding redemption, and finding it quickly. In an ironic twist, he set a freshman UW record for points scored in their 86-84 loss to OSU Thursday, yet he had a chance to make four free throws to help seal the win after he made made six straight from the stripe.

They never had a chance.

"That day really hurt," he said. "It's funny that potentially my best game was also my worst game the same day."

"I think he's taking the fact that we're not in the tournament pretty hard, but Tony loves to play," Romar added. "He'll be back."

Wroten has never given anyone the idea that he'll dwell on a rough patch; if anything he probably moved on quicker than most. Gant told the media Monday that he's not even going to watch the NCAA Tournament. If he's not playing in it, it's dead to him.

"I'm a basketball fan, so I'm going to watch it," Romar said of the Big Dance. "I look; I'm always trying to learn, so I'm watching those games. It's harder to watch, but I'll watch it."

Besides make their free throws, Washington will have to start their game Tuesday much faster than they did against the Beavers, where they eventually found themselves down 13 at the half. "You always want to start out playing your best," Gant said. "You don't want to start out flat. Starting out flat has gotten us in a lot of trouble this year, and it showed in that game the most."

But more than anything, it's been the lack of getting consistent defensive stops that cost the Huskies down the stretch. Romar said Monday that a lack of defense cost Washington just like defense was the key component in Colorado's run toward the Pac-12 automatic berth by winning the conference tournament Saturday.

"We definitely took a step back, and probably the main reason we're not in the NCAA Tournament," Romar said of UW's recent defensive effort. "People can blame whatever they want on anything they want to blame it on, but I'm telling you - we did not guard they way we should be guarding, and that's why we're not in the NCAA Tournament. It's those last two games."

His co-captain agreed.

"We know how much defense is important to us," said Gant. "It's harder because the guys that are playing the bulk of the minutes, it's hard for them to play defense like Romar wants us to, and then be productive on the offensive end. But we're going to have to find a way. We're not as deep as we used to be. But we're going to have to find a way now and get it done."
Notes:
Mavericks just as motivated: KJR interviewed UT-Arlington's Head Coach, Scott Cross, who talked about playing in the NIT and their motivation. "I think there was a lot of disappointment," he told Dave 'Softy' Mahler Monday. "We were 15-1 in the conference and that was our goal after winning the conference championship was getting to the NCAA Tournament. But we do look at it as a great opportunity. To play in a national post-season tournament like the NIT is a great honor and we're looking forward to it."

Is Cross concerned about the quick turnaround and making sure his team can get up for going long-distance to play a tough road test on the heels of a 20-point conference tournament defeat? "It definitely a concern," he said. "Winning a post-season game, it's never been done in the history of the program. If that doesn't get you fired up, if it doesn't get you fired up to play on national TV, then I don't know what does."

Solving the free throw problem?: With UW's 12-27 effort from the free throw line Saturday in the loss that knocked them out of the Pac-12 Tournament, the question that seemingly comes up every year reared its ugly head again Monday: what is it with Lorenzo Romar and poor free throw shooting teams?

Crunching the numbers, either Romar's teams have overachieved compared to other UW teams, or Washington has just been a very poor free throw shooting team throughout its 110-year history. Over Romar's 10-year career as Washington's head coach, his teams have shot a combined 69 percent (.688) from the free throw line, including six of his teams that shot over 70 percent. According to kept statistics, his 2005-06 team has the best free throw percentage of all-time (.749), and three of Romar's teams are in the top-five when talking about the best free throw shooting teams in the history of Washington basketball.

Just to compare to the 10 years prior to Romar's arrival at UW, the Huskies shot a combined 66 percent from the stripe.

Yet there's no question that poor free throw shooting against Oregon State was a huge contributor in that two-point defeat, and it's not the first time the Huskies have given up too many points via the line; they've shot less than 60 percent via the freebie line 12 times in 31 games, including their last three.

"Continue to work," Romar said when asked about his team's inability from the stripe and what can be done to rectify the problem. "It's an unfortunate situation. I disagree with those that say we're always a bad free throw shooting team. People say that, they don't look at the stats. 2007 and before, we were okay. In 2008, that's when we took a step back. A lot of times it coincides when guys that are taking the most foul shots struggle, then your free throw percentage is going to struggle as a team.

"Whoever the experts are, get Shaq to shoot 80 percent. I think free throw shooting is something that can be improved upon over a period of time. Our guys shoot countless free throws. I think you can get better; I don't know if you can go from being a 50 percent foul shooter to 80 or 90 percent. I think you can go from 50 to 60 in a period of time. The same methods you use in practice…C.J. (Wilcox) was first in the league for a long time. Did those methods work for him? No. He could shoot. He spent a lot of time shooting foul shots, working on his shooting technique. I've just seen it too many times with situations where you have a couple of guys that are outstanding foul shooters and a couple guys that aren't, but you're working on the same techniques with everyone. Obviously you change it, you tailor it to some others. Jamaal Williams, he improved his foul shooting. We worked with him on his technique and he improved. But he never became an 80 percent foul shooter."


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