If Arizona is the truly best team in the country – and the Wildcats have the No. 1 ranking and 15-0 unbeaten record to support that claim – then what does Saturday’s 71-62 defeat say about Washington?
A week ago naysayers practically buried the Huskies after wrapping up an uninspiring nonconference season. Few people – if any – gave UW much of a chance at a successful run through the Pac-12.
What are reasonable expectations for the Huskies, who return home after a Pac-12 opening road trip with a 1-1 record in the conference and 9-5 overall?
— A winning record?
— A top half of the conference finish?
— A postseason berth?
— A NCAA tournament berth?
It’s the first week of January and seemingly way too early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament. But the Huskies are halfway through the season and appear to be standing at a crossroads.
Their strong showings this week, including a 76-65 win at Arizona State, practically erases the previous two months of disappointments. However, the loss to UC Irvine could prove costly if the Huskies find themselves on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
But before Washington can think about the postseason, it needs to continue to forge an identity built on its improving defense. It appears the four-guard lineup is here to stay and that’s OK as long as the Huskies can rebound and push the ball in transition.
The Huskies leave Tucson, Ariz. with a renewed belief and confidence.
“We can play defense,” senior forward Perris Blackwell said. “We can play with the good teams. You can’t really count us out. That’s what we take from this.”
True to tradition, this Lorenzo Romar team is starting to hit its stride at the midpoint of the season. It’s been that way four of the past five seasons and this team is no different.
Washington is getting better and there’s room for improvement.
The eight players in the rotation Saturday are the corps of the team. Barring an injury, it doesn’t seem to make any sense trying incorporate anyone else into the rotation at this point.
Washington hosts Utah (12-2, 1-1) 8 p.m, Wednesday in the conference home opener. The late start could keep some fans away. Then the Huskies play No. 20 Colorado at 12 p.m. Sunday. The tried and true model for winning in the Pac-12 says to split games during road trips and hold serve at home.
The Huskies did that during Week 1. Just nine more weeks left.
MORE NOTES, QUOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
— C.J. Wilcox showed up in a major way on Saturday. Arizona coach Sean Miller said: “To me he looks like a NBA player. He had 20 and we did everything we could to stop him.”
Wilcox, a fifth-year senior, understands his role, which is why he took 19 shots and tried to take over the game towards the end. If a few more three-pointers had fallen for him – he was 2 for 6 behind the arc – then things would have really been interesting. As it were, Wilcox’s 20 point were critically important considering Washington had just 27 in the second half. He had 10 in both halves. He also had six rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes. Wilcox’s three turnovers were costly, especially when Nick Johnson stole the ball away from him and flushed a 360-degree dunk.
Still, it was one of the better games this season for Wilcox. He proved exceptionally smart in the final minutes, when he ran into a Kaleb Tarczewski screen that knocked him on his keister. After the game, Wilcox admitted he flopped on the play in order to draw a foul. He made both free throws, which pulled UW within two points (60-58) with 3:39 left.
Romar on Wilcox: “I thought C.J. did a heckuva job. I thought he was aggressive here on the road. I thought he really tried to take his team on his back and will his team to a win.
— Just when it seemed as if Blackwell had hit a plateau, he elevated his play this week. He’s been dunking. And defending. And rebounding better than any time this season. Whenever he shoots, it’s going in or he’s getting the rebound for a putback. Blackwell is shooting 58.6 percent this season and he was extremely accurate again Saturday. He converted 5 of 7 shots for 12 points. And the for the first time in years, the Huskies are fortunate to have a big man in the middle who can make free throws. Blackwell is shooting 70.6 percent at the line. He was 2 for 2 against Arizona. It hardly matters that he had four fouls against Arizona because he played 34 minutes, which is the most for him in the past seven games.
— Romar said when Shawn Kemp Jr. is right and playing like he did Saturday, then Washington has bench that’s lethal. “A little more physicality, size, another guy to score on the block,” Romar said. “Length. He’s played in some games himself now, a little more experienced.”
Kemp had a breakout performance when he tallied nine points on 4-for-4 shooting and three rebounds. He did all of that in the first half when he was saddled with three fouls. Kemp has to understand how important he is to Washington’s success. His two fouls in the second half were inexcusable considering they were of the ticky-tack variety. He sat out the final 10 minutes.
— It’s difficult to know for sure, but maybe Nigel Williams-Goss wore down a little bit in the second half. He committed three turnovers after the break. Twice T.J. McConnell got a steal off of him that led directly to Arizona baskets. Williams-Goss made 3 of 5 shots in the first half, but he was 1 of 7 in the second half. He finished with nine points, four assists and two rebounds in a game-high 37 minutes.
— You just knew Andrew Andrews would get a few good looks at the rim on the outside, but unfortunately for the Huskies he was 0 for 3 on three-pointers. He’s normally one of the most aggressive UW players, but the officials weren’t rewarding his daring dribble drives in which he threw himself at defenders and often landed hard on the court. Still, Andrews finished with five assists. He also had seven points, two steals and two turnovers.
— Considering Arizona’s size, this was going to be a tough offensive game for 6-4 Mike Anderson who had to face 6-9 Aaron Gordon and 6-8 Brandon Ashley. Anderson was scoreless and his biggest contribution were three rebounds. He did a valiant job on the defensive end, but it would be nice to see what he could do against opponents his size.
— Desmond Simmons and Darin Johnson combined for five points and three rebounds off the bench.