In a bad year for Pac-10, Huskies rise to the top
The Washington Huskies hung in this season, even when most of the other Pac-10 teams couldn't, and will be part of an NCAA tournament missing some big names.
Seattle Times staff columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. — No North Carolina, no Indiana.
But there's Washington.
No UCLA, no Arizona.
But there's Washington.
No Huskies of UConn, so the Huskies of U-Dub will have to suffice.
In a Big Dance fraught with shock over who's not here, there's Washington, crashing the NCAA tournament with a late flurry of good basketball, finding its way in the face of doubt and slim chances and constant scrutiny.
If ever there was a year to appreciate simply being invited, it's this one.
It's been a crazy year of parity and accepting imperfection. With so many legendary college basketball programs struggling, you should realize the feat of survival this season.
It dawned on me here in the desert, where March Madness definitely ran dry. About 150 miles away, Arizona failed to make the tournament after 25 straight appearances. And in Tempe, you couldn't find any Arizona State fans filling their empty beer mugs with tears at Boston's Gourmet Pizza on University Drive. Even before the brackets were revealed, they were resigned to the Sun Devils — the second-place finisher in the Pac-10 regular season — being locked out of the NCAA tournament.
"Pssh," a bartender replied to questions about disappointment.
Even though Arizona State went 12-6 in conference play?
"Not this year," the bartender said. "We know the deal."
The deal could be summed up in three letters: N-I-T.
Just think, this could've been the scene at Washington.
In fact, the Huskies were doomed to endure this scenario about 50 different times during their hysterical ride to salvation. Instead, they made it. What's more, they overcame their conference's menial 2009-10 reputation by claiming the only irrefutable achievement available: winning an automatic bid via the Pac-10 tournament.
Sometimes, staying slightly above the lowest common denominator is noteworthy.
The Pac-10 suffered its expected fate during Selection Sunday. Only Washington and California made the field of 65, and the general reaction was, "Hey, at least they got more than one in!" Most years, a two-bid Pac-10 would leave the nation shocked. This year, CBS analyst Seth Davis expressed shock that Cal, a No. 8 seed, and Washington, a No. 11, received so much love from the selection committee.
The Mountain West Conference earned twice as many bids as the Pac-10. You could fill an entire stand-up act with information about the Pac's futility this season, but we'll stop there. The most important thing: the Huskies didn't fall victim to their dire conference.
At the end, they rose above it, which is what you'd been waiting for all season. With this team, you can't be certain how it will fare in the NCAA tournament, but now that the pressure to make it is gone, it could be a pleasant journey.
The Huskies are back. They're back in the Dance for the second straight year, and they're back on steady ground in the conference despite its woes this season.
Two years ago, after Washington missed the tournament and fell to 16-17, you wondered if the Pac-10 had again become too mighty. The Huskies couldn't beat Washington State, which was about to make the Sweet 16. UCLA owned the league again. Arizona remained solid. Stanford, USC and Oregon made the tournament, too. Arizona State just missed out, and California had a ton of talent.
That left Washington lagging far behind, just ahead of Oregon State, and there were questions about whether the Huskies had lost all of their momentum from the era of Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson and Co.
Then they answered with a remarkable comeback year last season and took the regular-season title in a Pac-10 that earned six NCAA bids. And this season, despite all the drama, despite starting 3-5 in league play, the Huskies grew up after their underachieving start. Whether they advance deep this March or lose early, they've re-established their reputation and returned to the belief that they can be a perennial tournament team.
When the season ends, only Quincy Pondexter will depart. Though he's turned into a star, the expectation next season will be another NCAA appearance.
The Huskies have made it to the Dance five of the past seven years, but this one might be the most important. This one will help a team with nine freshmen and sophomores understand both how hard and how wonderful it is to be here.
This isn't the prettiest team Lorenzo Romar has guided to the NCAA tournament, but the Huskies are here. Even with a No. 11 seed and meager expectations, it means something special. To understand, just look at who's not here.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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