The “championship opportunity” mantra held so dear by the Seattle Seahawks has infiltrated the No. 16 Washington Huskies men’s basketball team.
San Jose State? Championship game. San Diego State? Championship game. Grambling State? Championship game.
“We’ve been trying to ... take every game like a championship game,” said sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, the Huskies’ foremost purveyor of said slogan. “We don’t say we’re going to take every game like a championship game except for Grambling.”
The difference on Saturday? Washington’s opponent, No. 15 Oklahoma, is the closest thing to a championship-caliber team the Huskies will face before Pac-12 play begins next month.
So the Huskies travel to Las Vegas for a 6 p.m. tipoff at the MGM Grand Garden Arena knowing that this will be their biggest challenge to date.
“They, from what we can see, will be the best team we’ll play in our nonconference schedule,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “They can shoot the ball. They can score in the paint. They really guard you. They’re versatile. They’re not going to make many mistakes. They’re a well-coached, well-oiled team.”
And they’re also the only remaining team on UW’s non-league schedule that figures to have a chance to blemish the Huskies’ unbeaten record.
After playing the Sooners, the Huskies (9-0) return home for far less taxing games against Tulane and Stony Brook. The UW’s worst-case scenario is likely an 11-1 record heading into the Pac-12 portion of its schedule — which would be better than most expected, and a better-than-good start toward a sufficient NCAA tournament résumé.
Beat Oklahoma (7-2), though, and the Huskies will almost certainly be 12-0 — and ranked in the nation’s top 15 — when they take the court for their Pac-12 opener at California on Jan. 2.
All of which, of course, is speculation that does not interest Romar.
“In my opinion, if you were able to win it, I think it’s another game where you’re undefeated. If you lose it, you came up short. I don’t know what it says,” Romar said. “I said (Wednesday) night, this game, win or lose, is not going to define our season.”
But it could help determine just how good the Huskies really are. Unlike San Diego State, which was ranked 13th when UW beat the Aztecs, 49-36, at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the Sooners can actually score — they average 75 points per game, they have four players in their starting lineup that average double-figures in scoring, and they collect 41.2 rebounds per game, a figure that ranks 21st nationally. They’ve lost to Creighton and fifth-ranked Wisconsin, and have beaten Butler and UCLA.
Buddy Hield, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, is the leader of that crew. He averages 16.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Romar again emphasized the need for his team to continue refining its defensive habits — they’ve so far allowed opponents to shoot just 32.8 percent from the field, fourth-best in the country — because Oklahoma will actually capitalize on UW’s errors.
“That could be the difference in the game,” Romar said. “I don’t mean turning the ball over as a mistake. Forgetting to rotate on a drive. Forgetting to rotate on the backside. Not closing out on a really good shooter when you’re supposed to. Those are the type of mental mistakes we can’t make.”
They haven’t made many so far, but Romar said some of their slip-ups go unnoticed by casual observers because 7-foot center Robert Upshaw makes up for them with his shot-blocking ability.
“We need to eliminate some of those defensive mistakes,” Romar said, “so we don’t have to rely on somebody making a big-time athletic play to save us.”
Oklahoma has big-time athletes, too.
“They’re a good team,” said Williams-Goss, who as a high-school sophomore committed to play for coach Lon Kruger, then at UNLV. “Really good offensively. They’re a lot better defensively this year than they were last year. They’re pretty balanced.”