The Huskies were reminded last week how quickly their fate can pivot on a single game in the month of March. A flurry of second-half 3-pointers altered their Pac-10 Tournament course, yanking the Dawgs' eight-game run to an abrupt halt. Back in Seattle preparing for finals, the team was poked by the sharp end of the reality stick when they received a No. 5 seed and UCLA, the team they twice defeated, moved up to the 2-slot. It's tourney time, baby—gotta make the most of the opportunity.
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of modern sports, Washington (24-6) again finds itself getting the short end of the stick in the pre-Tournament buzz. As they prepare to take on Utah State in San Diego, the Huskies are dogged by upset-themed questions. A No. 12 seed has knocked off a fifth-seed favorite every year since 2001 the reasoning goes, and who better to wear that target than a "slumping" team from the maligned Pac-10?
"People only remember your last game," said Brandon Roy, Washington's All-American weapon. "If we beat Utah State, people will move on."
Lost in the frenzy of bracket deadlines and the rush to judgment is the fact that the Huskies finished in strong fashion, claiming second place in the conference and their third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. For the likes of Roy, Bobby Jones and Mike Jensen—only the second group in UW history to make the Big Dance three years in a row—the experience has brought a seasoned perspective.
"When we're playing like we're capable of and bringing it on the defensive end, I think we can play with any team anywhere in the country," said Jensen, who will tangle with the Aggies' leading scorer, Nate Harris, at the outset.
"When we let up in games, we can get beat by Hofstra."
After matching last season's regular-season record, the only omission from the latest resume is a Pac-10 Tournament title. With the mighty-mite curiosity of Nate Robinson, the Huskies captured the nation's attention with an unexpected No. 1 seed. But the loss at the Staples Center this year may have been a blessing in disguise. Gone are the heightened expectations, the unrealistic hype, and the potentially distracting ESPN camera crews.
"(Our experience) is going to show up in how relaxed we are," said Roy, who led the Dawgs with 17 points in the first-round defeat of Montana last year. "All the other years, we were so ready, so amped up to go out and prove things; where this year not very many people are talking about us. It's given us a chance to go in there and be underdogs. We've been here before. We know that the games are not going to be won in the first 20 minutes, it's not going to won in the first 30 minutes…. I think our experience will show in the Utah State game."
Roy wasn't bothered by the fact that the Huskies seem to be a common pick to get upended like No. 5 seed Alabama was last year by Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which advanced to the Sweet 16. "We've proven that we can beat a Gonzaga and a UCLA, but we've also proven that we can lose to Washington State twice in a season. So if you went over the brackets and you said, 'Which team could slip up?,' I'd say Washington too. It's something we've brought upon ourselves. We haven't just been nails in games that we should win. I think (the upset predictions) are fine, but like I said, I'm picking Washington."
Utah State coach Stew Morrill found the talk of his team as the favorite a little puzzling. A few days earlier, the Aggies, an at-large bid out of the Western Athletic Conference, faced questions about their NCAA merit.
"What I find ironic is we were one of the teams that people said doesn't belong in the tournament. Now we're one of the upset specials. How does that work?" asked Morrill before his team practiced at Cox Arena on the campus of San Diego State.
The Aggies enter their second consecutive Big Dance having won seven of their last nine. Prior to last Saturday's overtime loss in the WAC title game to Nevada, a No. 5 seed in the Minneapolis Region, Utah State lost at home to the Wolfpack 75-57 on Feb. 25. The Huskies have won eight of their last nine, gaining a measure of revenge on two Tournament teams, California and Arizona, along the way. The Golden Bears earned a No. 7 seed in the Atlanta Region and the Wildcats are the No. 8 seed in the Minneapolis Region.
If Washington is to advance in the Washington (D.C.) Region, they'll have to control the agile Harris. The 6-foot-7 senior's trick bag of ball fakes, pivots, and short-range jumpers will be a challenge for the Huskies' frontline. While the Dawgs have better depth at the 4- and 5-spots this season, the rotation has been distilled down to eight men, so avoiding foul trouble will be important. The interior adjustments of Jensen, Jon Brockman and Jamaal Williams have been a critical part of the team's late-season success.
Jensen, for one, wasn't intimidated by what he's seen of Harris, who averages 17.2 points on 62-percent shooting. "He gets a lot of easy baskets, a lot of layups. It seems like a lot of teams fall asleep on him," said Jensen, the fifth-year senior who has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Ike Diogu and Channing Frye. "Our strategy is to not let him catch the ball. He's not a superstar out there, not somebody who's going to dunk on you. But when he gets free, he's able to score."
Preventing Utah State's perimeter trio of guards Jaycee Carroll and David Pak and small forward Durrall Peterson from catching fire from the 3-point range will be another key. Against Oregon, the Huskies' perimeter defense stumbled against the streaky Chamberlain Oguchi as Justin Dentmon was in foul trouble and Ryan Appleby was limited following the cheap shot from Aaron Brooks.
"It just a matter of us being tough and shutting those opportunities off for guys getting threes," said Williams. "I think we made a lot of mental errors that allowed (Oguchi) to get open and get good shots. If we eliminate those errors, we'll be fine."
Appleby, whose presence on the floor is important even if he's just a decoy to pull the defense towards the perimeter, was eager to get back up from the leveling blow. He acknowledged that the team might have a chip on its shoulder following the Oregon loss, but another chance in the postseason provides plenty of incentive.
"When I got hit and I was in the locker room getting stitched up, I wanted to make sure I got back out on the floor," said the sophomore transfer who saw some action with Florida in the 2004 tourney. "It's the NCAA Tournament now, so I don't even know if you need any more motivation."
Offensively, the Huskies will look to exploit the size and quickness advantage that they'll have at several spots. The Aggies' starting swingman, Peterson, is only 6-foot-3 and may have trouble matching up with the likes of Roy or Jones. If 6-foot-10 center Cass Matheus follows Jensen out to the arc, there will plenty of room for drives or Williams' patented jump-hook. The margin for error against Tournament-level teams is narrow, so the ability to hit a couple of 3-balls will be important, especially if USU resorts to a zone to counter Roy. Utah State's third leading scorer is sixth man Chaz Spicer, a 6-foot-7 forward averaging 7.8 points a game. Spicer's scoring off the bench in comparison to Williams' productivity could be a telling factor.
"Probably the biggest challenge is just going up against someone that you're not familiar with in terms of being on the same floor with them," said coach Lorenzo Romar. "Never having played a Utah State, a Montana, a Louisville, a Pacific, a UAB, sometimes you get out there and you spar a little bit before you really figure out what's going on even though you have a pretty good understanding (from the scouting report). You've got to be out there to experience it."
An anecdote from a pep talk that Romar gave Brockman during some midseason struggles may be just as apt for team's current situation. The coach noticed that the freshman forward was too preoccupied with the mental aspect, worried about assignments and locations.
"Jon, forget all that," Romar recalled telling his rebounding bulldog. "Just get maniacal. Just go play. Get after it, do what you do.
"Nate was a lot like that. In fact with Nate, when he was almost out of control that's when he was at his best. And Jon, when he just has no regard for any limb on his body, nor yours, that's when he's at his best. We wanted to make sure he had that mentality."
So maybe when the Dawgs tip-off their 2006 Tournament tonight, the most important stat won't be shooting percentages, but floor burns and second-chance points.
"A lot of people may have jumped off the bandwagon," Brockman said with early Pac-10 tourney exit. "We've got a chance to prove some people wrong and show some people that's not really how we play and that we're better than that."
Let the Madness begin.