It may not feel like a rivalry game to UW players, but Friday’s home game against Washington State is one of payback, and one that has distant postseason implications.
When the Washington basketball team hosts Washington State Friday night at Alaska Airlines Arena (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network), the Huskies won’t be thinking about their rivalry with WSU or their scant chance of making the NCAA tournament.
It’s just, well, another game in a long season. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“It’s not like ‘Oh, we’re playing Washington State, it’s a big game,'” sophomore guard Andrew Andrews said Thursday. “I personally think the Arizona game is more of a rivalry for the players than it would be for Washington State. Just the intensity of that game and the environment is a lot more hostile when we play Arizona than when we play WSU.”
Those aren’t so much fighting words as they are an indicator of where both programs stand as the Pac-12 schedule winds down. At 15-13, 7-8 Pac-12 and tied with Utah for seventh, the Huskies probably need to win their three remaining regular season games, all at home, then make the Pac-12 tournament finals to gain some consideration for the NCAA tournament.
Of course, winning the Pac-12 tournament ensures the Huskies don’t miss the Big Dance for a third consecutive year.
With UW holding a 78 RPI, a late run into the NCAA field of 68 is far-fetched, but the possibility intrigues senior guard C.J. Wilcox.
“For me, it’s just about winning and just getting the best possible position for the tournament and it just happens to be (WSU) that we’re playing tomorrow,” said Wilcox, who became the No. 2 scorer in school history (1,814 career points) after pouring in 23 last week in an 86-62 win at Oregon State.
The Cougars hold no such illusions.
They are amid a six-game losing streak. Their embattled coach, Ken Bone, will almost surely be fired at the end of the season. Freshman Que Johnson, a dynamic scorer at the beginning of the year, has reached double figures just once in the last six games. Their best player, Davonte Lacy (19.3 points per game), has been beat up by defenses since scoring 39 in a 80-76 overtime loss to Cal Feb. 12.
Junior point guard Royce Woolridge (7.2 points, 2.8 assists per night), a revelation late last season, looks as though his skills were magically stripped over the summer.
At 9-18 (2-13 Pac-12), WSU hasn’t won since a 72-67 triumph over the Huskies in Pullman before 5,796 overjoyed crimson-clad fans. It dropped UW coach Lorenzo Romar to 8-3 against Bone and momentarily rekindled a friendly rivalry that dates back to when the pair first met at a pickup basketball game while Bone attended Seattle Pacific and Romar played for UW. Bone later served as Romar’s assistant at UW from 2002-05.
“He was a good basketball player, had a nice J and was a nice guy,” Romar said of their meeting.
Their latest in Pullman was arguably UW’s most disappointing performance of the season. To that point, the Huskies, at 5-3 in conference, were on pace to exceed expectations after being picked to finish eighth in the preseason media poll. The loss sparked a three-game losing streak.
“It’s definitely a game that we look back on. It kind of started our downward slide,” Wilcox said. “It was one of those games that we expected to win. That kind of threw us off a little bit, and that came back to haunt us.”
“We were in pretty good shape up until that point. Maybe mentally it took a little out of us, but at the same time it was on the road. That was consistent — since Arizona, we didn’t do well on the road until more recently here at Oregon (and Oregon State).”
No such problems have plagued UW at home. The Huskies are 12-3 this season at Alaska Airlines Arena and will be favored against a WSU team with one road win.
Romar contended there won’t be a lack of luster for a game featuring programs in the bottom half of the Pac-12.
“I don’t think people are going to let us forget that it’s a rivalry,” he said. “It’s always going to be a rivalry game when the Huskies and the Cougars play in any sport.”
Rivalry or not, the Huskies must avoid a WSU season sweep to maintain any hope they can get hot when it matters in March.
“We’re still trying to dig ourselves out of this hole,” Romar said. “I don’t think we have the luxury to look that far right now.”