Huskies making best of conference mess

SEATTLE - Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said he watched both California and Arizona play Wednesday night, and although they were two different games, they were decided by the same score - 65-54. California lost to South Florida in a first-round NCAA Tournament game, while the Wildcats lost at home to Bucknell in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

The Golden Bears scored 13 first half points against the stingiest team in the Big East. Frankly, Cal must have thought they were in Pamplona, because they were thoroughly run over by the Bulls. And Arizona lost at home to the regular-season champions of the Patriot League, the same Bucknell team that lost their NCAA Tournament bid to Lehigh.

"I watched both of those games," Romar said Thursday morning as the No. 1 seed Huskies begin preparations to host No. 4 Northwestern in the second round of the 75th National Invitation Tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena Friday at 7 pm. The game will be televised on the ESPN family of networks. "In the South Florida game, Cal ran into a buzz-saw. That was some very physical, aggressive guys. They had the chip on their shoulder. You could see the way they went out and played - they got after it. I think they had Cal on their heels right away. And Arizona - Kevin Parrom being out, Josiah Turner not being able to play…for whatever reason it was, it may have taken something out of them. And Bucknell is a really good team. Unfortunate for our conference, but it is what it is."

'It' is all about Pac-12 basketball. 'It' is about a conference that has hit rock bottom. When it comes to national perception the Pac-12 is considered now just slightly better than your weekly hoops run at 24 Hour Fitness. "This year, and I hate to be redundant, but we made our bed as a conference, and we're going to continue to hear those criticisms until next season comes around and we do something about it, which I think we will," Romar said, matter-of-factly. "Every now and again, that's going to happen."

And 'it' happened again Wednesday, leaving only Colorado to wave the conference banner in the NCAA Tournament from here on out. Who would have thought that was even a possibility two weeks ago? But when you don't take care of your business and you are part of a league that went a combined 0-18 against the current AP Top-25, you're not going to get a lot of sympathy from the national media. In fact, you're going to get a lot more gut laughs than hugs.

And make no mistake - Washington played their part in all of it, losing to both Duke and Marquette as well as losing their last two Pac-12 games in situations where the reigning regular-season champs should have played up to the level you would expect from reigning regular-season champs. But they didn't, and the NCAA selection committee was most likely left alternating between frowns and giggles when looking at the Pac-12's conference resume, wondering who mislabeled their file. This surely couldn't be the CV of a power conference?

"It may be hard to change total perception," Romar said. "I always feel that an opinion is formed in January of a particular conference, and regardless of what happens after that it's hard to displace that label. I that in the years' past when the Pac-10 was being criticized, what changed that was 2-3 teams in the Sweet Sixteen from this league, or a couple teams in the Elite 8. That changed it."

Romar is currently concerned with his team, a group that really didn't seem to take their first round game as seriously as a post-season tournament game should warrant. "It felt like a regular home game, really," said junior guard Abdul Gaddy after the Huskies' 82-72 first round win over UT-Arlington Tuesday night. "It felt like a non-conference home game."

And that's a problem. It wasn't just another home game. It was a tournament game. While the official attendance was 2801, there were more people at Alaska Airlines Arena than that - but not by that much. Washington has a chance to win a major post-season tournament for the first time in school history, so the last thing you would expect to see is a team acting like it's been there before.

"There is a championship to be had," Romar said, spelling out the reasons why the Huskies need to approach this time of the year with a sense of urgency. "Within that championship, you're playing tournament-type competition. You advance; it's all on the line. If you lose, you're done. If you can win a few, you can go to New York and play in Madison Square Garden. And then it really becomes fun. It's competition, you know."

"I feel like our guys have embraced the fact that we are in the NIT now, and we all have the mindset to go as far as we can and try to win it," added senior forward Darnell Gant after the win Tuesday. "Whatever happened in the NCAA tournament is in the past now and we can't change it. We can't do anything about it. We can't get in. So we have to make the most of it now."

Right now, the Huskies are one of five Pac-12 teams still standing; Stanford and Oregon also won their NIT first round games, while Oregon State and Washington State took care of business in their first round CBI match ups. The Huskies and Ducks meet up in a potential quarterfinal of Northwest rivals if they both win their next games; Stanford's next opponent is Illinois State, who beat Mississippi.

After beating UT-Arlington and knowing their next opponent, the Huskies are saying all the right things. "Our coach had told us there's two types of teams in this tournament; there's the teams that are really happy to make the NIT because they weren't sure they were going to make the NIT, and then there's teams that are down because they didn't make the NCAA Tournament," said Gaddy, adding that the players know all about Northwestern and what they are capable of doing.

It simply may be that the Huskies see Northwestern as a bigger challenge because they are from a power conference. After all, who is in the Southland Conference? Who won their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament? That would be the Pat Knight-led Lamar Cardinals, who just happened to lose Wednesday night to Vermont one of the First Four games.

Fact is, Washington got crushed on the backboards against UT-Arlington, especially on the offensive glass. They got out-hustled, and the Mavericks wanted it more until the Huskies were able to wear them out with a red-hot second half shooting effort. It's going to take a lot more than that to beat the Wildcats Friday, a team that is as battle-tested as any team UW will face this year.

Romar isn't sure if the carrot of an NIT Championship would be enough for this team. "Maybe it could," he said. "We've had situations already where…recently as Oregon State, we knew what we had to do. I don't know if there's any more motivation you needed for that one. We didn't take care of business.

"Our team…we have to decide - we're going to lay it all out…period. We should be there. We shouldn't have to use any further motivation. We should be motivated enough." Top Stories