Can Huskies Salvage Season with NIT?

Lorenzo Romar wants to be very clear about this point; it was not his intention to make a return trip to New York this soon. When Washington scheduled Marquette and Duke for December games at Madison Square Garden, it was done with the idea of prepping the Huskies for the season ahead. Now they've got a scouting report on the building, and they're going to use it - starting Tuesday.

"No, that definitely was not in the plan," Romar said of Washington's NIT Final Four appearance against Minnesota Tuesday night at 6 pm PT. The game will be shown on ESPN2. "But you make the best of what you've got."

And what they have right now is actually pretty good. By the end of the day Sunday, they'll be one of only 10 college basketball teams still playing, still alive. And maybe - just maybe - they'll be able to finish one of their college seasons off with a win, something that hasn't happened to a Washington basketball team since 2001, the year before the Pac-12 Tournament's return. And if you are looking for a post-season tournament win to finish things, you'll have to go back nearly 60 years, where the 42 points of UW legend Bob Houbregs helped the Huskies hold off LSU 88-69 to win the third-place game of the 1953 NCAA Tournament.

"It's been great to be with this team longer," said Romar. "These guys don't understand that they will never be together again for the rest of their lives in this capacity. And when you're this age, you really don't understand that and it may not be a big deal to you until you get older."

What they would get a kick out of is hanging a banner from the Alaska Airlines Arena rafters, something they'll be doing anyway next year with their 2011-2012 Pac-12 regular season championship. But they might as well go for a double, and Romar believes the team is past their NCAA remorse.

"No one is having a pity party now," Romar said. "I think our guys are excited to be a part of this. When we first realized we were going to be in the NIT, we tried to help them understand - and at first they didn't.

"We tried to explain to them how fun this would be if they continued to win. We went from a high of winning of a conference championship, to a low losing in the opening round, to more of a high in terms of going to New York to play in the Final Four with a chance for a national championship in the NIT. So I think our guys are pretty excited."

And the Huskies' 90-86 win was - at least from the purple and gold perspective - certainly exciting, and also a lot of fun. It was clear from the team's performance that they have undoubtedly shaken off the cobwebs and are fully on board with winning a trophy. It may not be the one they thought of a few weeks back, but silverware is silverware.

"Thanks to that crowd that came out here, I think that got the guys excited," Romar said of their NIT quarterfinal win over the Ducks. "The Northwestern game was pretty good, but when the crowd came out against Oregon and the way we played and the way they got into it the way I think…everything was gone. Everything was over. We were ready to move on."

Washington has very little NIT history compared to their semifinal opponents. UW is 6-5 all-time in the tournament, and their 2012 run is the longest run they've had in the tournament. In 1982 they made the round of 8, eventually losing 81-76 at Nebraska.

The Gophers, by comparison, are NIT veterans. They've been to the National Invitation Tournament 14 times, winning the whole thing twice - once in 1993 and also in 1998, but the '98 title was vacated due to an infamous scandal that involved academic fraud. They have a 27-12 all-time NIT record. And they've been able to make the Final Four despite losing forward Trevor Mbakwe in a loss to Dayton, their seventh game of the season. At the time Mbakwe, a 6-foot-8 forward, was averaging 14 points a game before going down with a season-ending ACL tear. He has since been granted a sixth year of eligibility, so he'll be back at Minnesota next year.

"They'd be in the NCAA Tournament, no questions asked," Romar said of the Golden Gophers if Mbakwe had stayed healthy. "They really embody team. They are very aggressive, they guard you really well, and they play together. Their team knows their roles. They are a tough opponent. They go about their business like a Colorado - they just give you nothing easy. They are a team…I keep using that word for them because that's what keeps coming up when I think about them."

At this point in the season, the teams get tougher and the games get harder, and Romar feels confident the Huskies have what it takes to wave the flag for the Pac-12, even if the damage done to the conference's reputation this season is probably beyond meaningful repair - at least from the national perspective. If they are able to get to the championship game, they could see themselves facing Stanford, a mouth-watering proposition for those on the left coast, but probably must-miss television for the rest of the country.

And that's the problem right now; even if UW does everything they can to roar to an NIT title, a part of it will feel like a vanity exercise to those that won't give the Pac-12 any credit on the college basketball stage. And who could argue with them? After all, Washington's resume wasn't enough to justify an NCAA bid despite winning a regular-season crown in a 'power' conference.

"I don't know how much we can restore, but I think it's great that half of the field is represented by the Pac-12," Romar said. "I think it's really good. And if we're able to do well in New York, it could be looked at as not only did you win a Pac-12 championship, but also another championship."
N'Diaye sat out Saturday - Washington left for NYC at noon Saturday, but not without getting one last workout in at Hec Ed. Aziz N'diaye was sitting out. "Aziz didn't practice today because of his wrist…he fell on his wrist yesterday," Romar said. "I know it's painful, but that's just him and C.J. resting."

Does that mean there's a possibility N'Diaye or Wilcox could sit out Tuesday's game? "Everyone will play," added Romar.

Romar and Tubby - Strangely enough, despite 37 combined head coaching seasons, Lorenzo Romar and Tubby Smith have never gone head-to-head before. Smith's Tulsa team did beat UCLA in the first round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament while Romar was part of the Bruins' staff, but that's as close as they've come. "I hope the game doesn't go like that one," Romar joked Saturday.

But that doesn't mean Romar isn't good friends with Smith. "Nike trips, conventions…Tubby's one of the most enjoyable guys to be around," Romar said. "When we go on the Nike trips with the coaches, he's in the egg tosses, and if it requires putting on makeup and being a clown, he'll do that. Whatever…he's all for the team. He's just a great guy to be around. He's one of my favorite coaches in the NCAA.

Being a clown? Romar laughed. "You guys are good! Let's just say…he would dress up as a policeman, a diplomat, the President…whatever. I'll say that." Top Stories