TUCSON, Ariz. – The Washington Huskies have now won back-to-back road games – something that seemed unfathomable a month ago.
And while the wins over Utah and Arizona State should not be slighted, what the Huskies face today at the McKale Center is going to be completely different.
Even coach Lorenzo Romar, who has refused to downplay the two road wins over the Pacific-12 Conference dregs, knows that his team is in for its toughest test away from Alaska Airlines Arena.
Tougher than Duke in Madison Square Garden.
With ESPN’s College Gameday on hand, and Arizona fans planning a “white out” celebration, the sellout atmosphere figures to be electric.
“This group has not played in anything like what we are going to play in (today),” Romar said. “It remains to be seen how we will respond.”
The Duke and Marquette games in New York weren’t played in front of full crowds, and against Duke, Washington had a large contingent of fans.
“Against Duke it was like 50-50,” freshman Tony Wroten said of the crowd ratio. “This is going to be like 90-10, if 10.”
How about St. Louis?
“St. Louis was a great environment, but the place was three-quarters full,” Romar said.
In the road win against Utah, Washington played in front of a crowd of less than 5,000 fans, and they also had a healthy smattering of UW fans.
That won’t be the case today.
There will be close to 15,000 fans – most of them clad in white shirts and unfriendly.
“A real player comes and looks at this place, and says: ‘Yep, this is just how I like it here. This is about as good as it gets. Let’s go play,’” Romar said.
But not all players have that mentality. Some shine and some shrink in these situations.
“That’s sports, man,” Romar said. “It happens at all levels to all different types of players. You love seeing those players that come out in these types of games and you see them swelling up in front of everybody – they aren’t backing down at all.”
One player who doesn’t have any plans of backing down is Wroten, who was a mixture of giddiness and intensity when talking about the magnitude of the matchup.
“It’s going to be a crazy,” he said. “I live for moments like this. You just have to be ready to come play and hopefully keep the crowd out of it.”
Wroten can’t understand why somebody wouldn’t want to play in a packed house on national television.
“Some people live for this, and some people run away from this,” he said. “I feel like if you are in college basketball, you got to live for this, you got to be ready. You know its going to be crazy. It’s going to be hard, but you have to do what you have to do.”
Wroten’s mentality is similar to his play on the court – fearless. He isn’t going to be intimidated.
It’s become apparent that when Wroten plays under control, the Huskies aren’t likely to be beaten.
Against Arizona State, he was 9-for-12 from the floor, scored 22 points and didn’t take a single jump shot. He is second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 17.1 points per game and is steadily improving each time out.
It’s caught the attention of opposing players and coaches.
“There aren’t many guys that play the style he plays,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I mean that in the most complimentary way I can. He’s a real difference maker.”
Miller said he’s amazed by Wroten’s size and strength and willingness to mix it up inside.
“Powerful, explosive,” he said. “It’s tough to call him a guard, even though he is one, because he’s strong in and around the basket. He loves the physicality and can score through bigger players.”
While it’s clear that Wroten isn’t planning to wither in the spotlight, how his teammates respond is another matter.
Players such as Terrence Ross, Aziz N’Diaye, Darnell Gant and C.J. Wilcox played in last season’s 87-86 loss in Tucson, which was also a “white-out” celebration.
“There was so much electricity in the building, it was like a heavyweight prize fight,” Romar said. “And they came out throwing every blow imaginable and we were on the ropes, but we withstood the flurry early and gradually came back.”
But that team had Isaiah Thomas, and three senior leaders, to withstand such a flurry.
When things went south last year, Thomas would often will the Huskies back into games.
“That was a veteran team last year,” Romar said.
The current Huskies don’t have that player. Wroten is close, but as a true freshman he’s still learning on the fly. So the responsibility has fallen to a committee of players, which so far has had mixed results.
If Arizona comes out throwing haymakers, will the Huskies be able to withstand them? Romar isn’t certain. He just knows it won’t be dull.
“This is going to be the best atmosphere in all of college basketball,” he said. “It should be a lot of fun.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports
Washington at Arizona, 4 p.m., ESPN, 950-AM