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Washington Husky Huddle for Sunday March 11th 2012 (Part One)

The Dawgs have done a lot of good things this season, but with not enough margin of error to not be sweating bullets on selection Sunday. At 21-10, the Huskies are in my opinion worthy of an NCAA at-large bid, despite their 86-84 loss on Thursday to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tourney.

Never mind that Freshman guard Tony Wroten scored a UW freshman record 29 points, the loss was potentially devastating to the Huskies season. Sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox scored 16, followed by sophomore guard Terrence Ross with 15 and junior guard Abdul Gaddy with an impressive 13 to go with six assists, but the stats were the last thing to refer to when this game comes to mind.

Frankly, the loss to UCLA was right in character with what this year’s team does, as I explained in my last column here. UW split weekend trips on the road, which is a winning formula in any conference race, except for finding the competitive juice to sweep in Arizona and got a little luck as well to beat WSU in Pullman on the backs of a slew of junior Coug post Brock Motum’s missed free throws.

By winning all but one league home game and a reasonable to expect road loss by Cal to Stanford, the Dawgs won the league by one game. That in itself should get them an at-large bid. I feel that the Pac-12, probably more than any other league, plays much better and prepares better all year (recruiting, etc.) towards competing against one another.

The league does a very poor job generally of winning games in November and December against teams that it should beat, picks up bad losses by the droves and barely seem to get it up for big name opponents.

Lawrence Mitchell of Husky Haul did a nice job of pointing out that after the foibles of the fall, UW went 16-4 and put a solid performance together, going into the OSU game. Unfortunately that late season gaffe came at a very inopportune time and there lies the the central question for this year’s UW team. Is their body of work enough?

Skeptics would argue that all teams improve as the year goes on, but my opinion is that over time, Pac-12 teams do so at a much higher rate than the national average. It’s just the eye test. Who looks better on the court. The Pac-12 has been able to prove it by outperforming their projected success in the post season. On Saturday ran an interesting piece which debated the eye test question intelligently.

Last year it was Arizona coming within an eyelash of beating eventual champ UConn in the elite-8. ‘Zona was a team that Washington beat in the final of Pac-10 tourney and beat 2/3 times. UW was shackled with having to go to Charlotte NC to face Georgia, who they beat and then North Carolina who used a full house of fans in their home state and more than a little home cookin’ from the refs to barely squeak out a win. I would argue that UConn, VCU, Butler and Kentucky, all of the Final-Four would have lost that game 4-5 times.

Speaking of the east coast Huskies, UW will play UConn for a home and home. On a local radio show on Tuesday, UW assistant coach Jim Shaw said that UW will play at UConn in late 2012 and come to Montlake for a date in the next season (2013-14). That will be the continuation of a rivalry that has yielded two of the worst losses in UW history, in the 1997 Sweet-16, where Richard Hamilton beat the Dawgs on a last second shot and in 2006 where UW had control of the game and made a number of blunders to allow UConn to get into overtime where they won it. An emotional time will be had for all I’m sure.

But in 2011, USC lost in the play-in game to eventual Final Four team VCU and the Trojans actually fared better than some very big name teams that the Rams beat to get there. UCLA received a brutal draw, having to face powerful Florida in the 2nd round, who went on to lose in overtime to eventual runner-up Butler. The Bruins played the Gators tough and were definitely in that game until the last minutes.

In 2010-11 Cal’s Mike Montgomery took a team that had lost four senior starters that had led them in every way imaginable and were able to squeeze out an NIT run, where they lost in the 2nd round to eventual NIT Final Four team Colorado. The Buffs performed a similar feat this season by losing a lottery pick in Alec Burks, the schools all-time scoring co-leader (that’s a neat trick to pull off) in Cory Higgins and others, to find themselves in Saturday’s Pac-12 conference final.

How can teams lose so much and turn around and do so well? It’s coaching folks, plain and simple. Coaching is a lot more than in game strategy. It’s not just getting big time recruits with five stars next to their name and navigating a host of handlers, agents and others. It’s talent evaluation and preparation.

Getting the players that you can, to fit your system and preparing them to perform roles in a team concept. Montgomery and the Buffs’ Tad Boyle (who nearly won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year as a result) have done great jobs and by the end of December and more importantly in March have teams that are just about as good as they can be, based on what they have to work with.

In 2010-11, Ken Bone of WSU, who also does a great job, got his Cougs to the NIT Final Four, along with Boyle. That’s not all, as Oregon’s Dana Altman took a team that had been literally turned upside down to the CBI title. There are too many great coaches, that proved in my opinion last season alone, that they know how to get a team ready for March Madness. The problem is that they have to play each other and only one can win the conference race.

UW Coach Lorenzo Romar won COY this year, because he beat teams that were playing very well in league play. He won it because he took a team with 1.2 years experience on average, 2nd lowest on the conference. Yes, his critics (mostly fans of teams that are jealous) will weigh that he has a number of guys with NBA potential to work with and they are right, but that doesn’t tell the story.

Arizona had a much higher ranked recruiting class than UW in 2011 and UW swept them. According to Rivals on June 10th 2011, the ‘Cats were the 4th best class in the nation compared to UW at 20th, Oregon at 21st, followed by ASU and the Buffs (both unranked).

Oregon lost 5-star Jabari Brown, ASU lost an important piece for them in Jahii Carson, while in retrospect the Buffs pair of freshman guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker made up a class that probably performed better than Arizona’s overall, at least as pure freshmen.

That’s coaching to make good decisions on talent evaluation, not only from the standpoint of talent, but personality, academics and character. Romar did a better job of that than anyone in the Pac-12 this season as well. The problem for the Dawgs is that when they clinched at least a share of the league title by beating USC, this young group seemed to be satisfied.

On Monday after UW won the out right title, with Cal’s loss at Stanford, Romar said to the media about getting an at-large bid, “You win the Pac-12 outright; that still seems hard to imagine that not being good enough, but we’re just going to go as far as we go and let the chips fall as they may”.

He followed that with the statement, “That’s not how we are going to approach this tournament” adding “We are going there to win it”.

Romar even stuck with the notion after the OSU loss stating “I would think the Pac-12 champion would be able to find a place in the NCAA tournament”, but backtracked a bit the next day

The problem here is that the knee jerk reaction of his first comment reveals body language that in my opinion effects the team. I agree with Lorenzo and I would think that UW fans would feel very satisfied last Monday, but I am not the UW head coach. Perhaps Romar will learn to measure his enthusiasm in this type of situation in the future. It seemed that he reconsidered the situation a bit when he met with the press on Tuesday when he spoke to the media.

“We need to win some games. 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.”

Wroten also said the right things on Tuesday to the media.

“We’re never satisfied, even if we are a lock in the NCAA Tournament. 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.”

They talked the talk, but in games against UCLA and OSU, the Dawgs just didn’t walk the walk. They didn’t maintain their edge when it counted down the stretch, as they had in wins that got them to that perch. They had problems in those two games maintaining their effort, playing as if they could turn it on when they wanted to and their body language said to me that the situation against OSU was not as dire as it indeed was.

Perhaps the Dawgs were reading their press clippings a bit too much, as Gregg Bell of, among others waxed early in the week about which Dawg was going to be this year’s hero, as Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas had in the previous two years, as opposed to how easy it would be for a first round loss to put the Dawgs on the outside of the bubble.

Speaking of Thomas, he was the subject of an AP feature which pointed out how he is turning heads very early in his NBA career on Thursday.

Were the Dawgs problems in the last two games coaching, or is that just the inexperience shining through when you least want it to? Some blame has to go on the UW staff, but what happened is more about the type of drills that they set up to teach FT’s, than in mental game preparation, reading too many puff pieces or press conference gaffs.

UW did all that it had to do to be in position to beat both the Bruins and the Beavers and looked like the better team as late as the latter stages of the game, but couldn’t finish in either. Against the Bruins it was taking care of the ball and getting defensive boards, as it had shown all year it was capable of doing. That said, UCLA did a great job in those areas and the loss to the Bruins is not the problem to me.

Romar said on Sunday after the Cal loss to Stanford that his team played well against UCLA, despite the loss, as if he was satisfied with the progress.

“We had some lapses with not taking care of the ball and we had some lapses on defense. But overall, we’ve gotten a lot better than we were earlier in the season.”

I think that the way UW played against the Bruins was commendable, but a loss is still a loss. If Lorenzo was satisfied, then he may not have stressed how important it was for the Dawgs to improve going into the Pac-12 tourney. Perhaps he did, but his teams fate is just what it was. A team that was too young to really finish the job like veterans.

I believe that this year’s Dawgs basically overachieved by winning the outright title and couldn’t handle success well, a classic trait of a young team, regardless of talent level. Senior post Darnell Gant did a good job of leading this immature group, as it’s only true veteran, but he (like the whole team) was just not focused enough to finish the job.

Percy Allen of the Seattle Times put it well on Thursday, when he summarized the UW season as a year of “lost opportunities”, but I feel that this team created those opportunities or more appropriately expectations, but looking more as if they were capable of playing above their heads than anything else, including the notion that the league was so weak.

Against the Beavers it was just FT’s, as UW had been on the other side of in Pullman, a somewhat cruel but telling twist of fate.

It was a close race for supremacy in the Pac-12 in 2012 and it’s still not over, until the NCAA committee decides and even beyond that, as we see how the conference does in the postseason to make final evaluations. Some would even argue and rightly so that the final assemblage of the recruiting classes of 2012 also weigh into that and the spring signing period in April is where a lot of that (but not all) will be settled.

Aside from all of the speculation from the various experts about who the NCAA will chose, the committee alone will decide it. UW should be in the dance, as they won the conference race, but the stumble against OSU certainly put them in jeopardy and it was not unlike a lot of what I’ve come to expect from this team.