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Originally published March 11, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified March 13, 2012 at 12:31 PM

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Huskies have no one to blame but themselves for not making NCAA tournament

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he knew after the Huskies' loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament they'd have a hard time making the NCAA tournament.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Lorenzo Romar knew. He knew a half-hour after last week's loss to Oregon State.

An eternal optimist, Romar, Washington's basketball coach, was more pessimistic than I'd ever seen him as he stood in a hallway outside his team's locker room following Thursday's quarterfinal game in the Pac-12 Conference tournament.

He knew his team hadn't done enough. He knew his conference hadn't done enough. He knew, as much as he didn't want to believe it, that Washington wasn't going to be one of the 68 teams invited to this season's NCAA tournament. He seemed sadly resigned to his fate.

The Huskies had to finish the season strong and they didn't. And after three straight NCAA tournament trips, this team is condemned to the NIT, where it will play Texas-Arlington at home on Tuesday.

"I'm usually a half-full glass guy," Romar said on Sunday's post-NCAA selection teleconference, "but seeing how things were shaping up and understanding how this whole process works, my glass was probably half-empty after the Oregon State loss."

The Huskies have nobody to blame but themselves. All they had to do this month was beat a staggering UCLA team and/or ninth-seeded Oregon State.

Despite all of the bad losses, as they went into March and as they traveled down to Los Angeles, a school-record, fourth-straight NCAA tournament bid was just a couple of wins away. They controlled their destiny.

But then they stopped playing defense the way Romar's teams are supposed to play it. And late in both losses to UCLA and Oregon State, unlike most of Romar's teams, they stopped playing together on offense.

The Huskies got lost in Los Angeles. It was a final stunning twist to a confounding season.

"The last two really hurt us," Romar said. "When we lost to Oregon State, I got concerned. Really concerned. We lost control and then we were at the mercy of upsets."

Colorado upset California in the semifinals of the conference tournament. And St. Bonaventure upset Xavier in the final of the Atlantic 10 tournament, and the Huskies' bubble burst.

But even in November and December, the Huskies played like a bubble team. After losing by 13 on the road at Saint Louis, they blew a late lead at Nevada and lost twice in Madison Square Garden, at the buzzer to Marquette and in the first half against Duke.

If the Huskies had won just one of those games, they would have made the tournament.

There was nothing wrong with Romar's nonconference season scheduling. The degree of difficulty was there. But there was something seriously wrong about the results.

The new reality in college basketball is that games in November and December are as important as games in January, February and March.

Early-season nonconference losses aren't learning experiences anymore. They're hurdles that can haunt teams the rest of the season. In the just-win world of college hoops, there is precious little time left for teaching, or experimenting with offensive sets, or figuring out substitution patterns.

"Maybe we get to a (substitution) rotation quicker because of how important these games are," Romar said, thinking about future Novembers and Decembers. "Sometimes we try to play a lot of guys early to figure out who is going to be the best out there on the floor as a team down the stretch."

Washington's overall résumé and its 71 RPI weren't a compelling argument for making the tournament. But the Huskies did win the regular-season Pac-12 championship.

And by not inviting them to the tournament, the committee was, in effect, saying the conference regular season, even for an alleged power conference, doesn't mean as much as it once did. That once-sacred idea that in college basketball, "every game counts," now is anachronistic.

Washington was 14-4 in the conference. The Huskies didn't sneak into a championship with a mediocre record. They won 12 of 14 in the teeth of the conference season. But this season it didn't matter.

"The selection process is done a lot by numbers," Romar said. "You almost feed information into the computer and then let it spit out the field of 68. Our conference was just not ranked as high based on the numbers this year. That's why we suffered. Are we the 69th best team, or 70th? No way in the world. We're definitely one of the best 68 teams."

Still they had an invitation in their hands. They led Oregon State by eight points, with eight minutes to go. All they had to do was take care of the ball, play solid defense and make their free throws.

They didn't. And after that loss, even Romar understood the consequences.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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