The ninth-seeded Huskies face No. 8 seed Utah State in the NCAA tourney Friday in Columbus. The Aggies are favored — for good reasons.
Two ways to look at the University of Washington’s first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the simpler days, back when the FBI wasn’t the the principal force in college basketball.
From 30,000 feet: Sunday’s selection marks an astonishing accomplishment, given that two years ago, following a 9-22 season and the firing of coach Lorenzo Romar, the program looked as bleak as Australia’s Outback in The Road Warrior.
From the ground: Ummm . . .
The Huskies were embarrassed twice in two weeks by the Oregon Ducks, including Saturday’s dismal second half in the Pac-12 Conference championship. Bad as was the 6-for-27 shooting in the final 20 minutes, conference coach of the year Mike Hopkins gagged a bit on another aspect of the 68-48 loss.
“One thing were were disappointed with against Oregon was — we can always count on defense,” he said Sunday on a teleconference with reporters, noting that the Ducks in the second half “shot 60 percent and went to the foul line 17 times.”
If the ninth-seeded Huskies (26-8), kings of the mediocre West, can’t kick up some gravel with their zone defense, the trip to Columbus to play No. 8 Utah State (28-6) in the first round of the Midwest regional Friday (3:50 p.m., TNT), will be largely ceremonial. And since the game’s winner likely gets No. 1 North Carolina Sunday, the shot for a dose of March Madness will have to come Friday.
Hopkins tried valiantly to talk around the loss and talk up the enthusiasm for the selection. He knows the Huskies played their best ball at mid-season, and are on a fade, going 4-3 over the past seven games as opponents figured ways to beat the zone.
“At the end of the season, you want to be playing your best basketball,” he said. “We stumbled a few times, but our style is a great tournament style.
“If you’re in the field, you have a chance.”
Just as Yosemite Sam always seemed to have a chance against Bugs Bunny.
Speaking of Yosemite Sam, a little of his passion might be useful for Washington. The Huskies have lost some edge since clinching the regular-season title early. It’s hard to even think about a team gone from the NCAA field since 2011 being smug, especially for the four seniors who stayed through the collapse and renaissance.
But who knows the hearts and minds of 21-year-olds?
David Crisp, one of the honored four, is ringing up no-sale on that possibility.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” he said on the teleconference. “It’s the best show in the world.
“When I told coach I was staying, I said we had unfinished business. This was the business I was talking about.”
It may be that the tourney seeding and general scorn accorded the Huskies’ finish will re-ignite the earlier fire. But in the playing of the disrespect card, they have an able rival.
Operating under an obscure coach, Craig Smith, in his first year, Utah State was picked ninth in the Mountain West Conference pre-season media poll. But the Aggies of Logan won the tournament title Saturday, 64-57 over San Diego State, to get the league’s automatic entry.
They have been installed by the bookies a three-point favorites, yet another volley to nethers of the Pac-12, which this season cannot look down on any league aside from the Incontinent Conference. The Pac-12 did defy the odds, getting Arizona State (play-in game) a bid as the third team following tourney champ Oregon (12th seed).
There is good reason the Huskies are not favored. Utah State has won 10 in a row and 18 of its past 19.
The Aggies have a 6-foot-11 freshman center from Portugal, Neemias Queta, averaging 12 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 blocks. They also have a 6-5 junior guard, Sam Merrill, from nearby Bountiful, who averages 21.2 points a game. He’s one of seven returned Mormon missionaries on the roster, which means the Aggies have an average age that’s older than, say, the roster of the Phoenix Suns.
They also pay a bitter brand of defense that will probably take learnings from Oregon’s efforts that held UW to 47 and 48 points in the two recent meetings.
Still, the Huskies at their best nearly beat Gonzaga, and properly humbled by late developments, stand the 8/9 seed game’s 50-50 chance.
“We’ll use (the Oregon loss) as feet to the fire,” Crisp said. “Hearing our name (on the telecast) was burst of energy.
“You want to put program where it’s been — going to the tourney consistently.”
From 30,000 feet, that deed seems done. Up close, however, it looks close to one-and-done.