Something about playing against the Arizona Wildcats always seems to bring the best out of the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team. Especially during the Lorenzo Romar coaching era, and especially at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Before Romar took over as UW’s coach in 2002, Arizona owned a 34-15 all-time record against the Huskies. The teams have split the 26 meetings since – 13 wins each – and Washington, unsurprisingly, has been particularly salty against the Wildcats in Seattle. They’ve played each other at Hec Ed 11 times in Romar’s career. Washington has won seven of those meetings, including five of the past six, but hasn’t beaten Arizona anywhere since a 79-70 victory on Feb. 18, 2012.
So as the Wildcats (20-3, 8-2 in Pac-12), ranked seventh in both major polls, prepare for their Friday visit to Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Romar and the Huskies hope they can summon enough of yesteryear’s magic to pull off an upset, snap their five-game losing streak and establish a reason to believe they can still win.
Time is running out to do so. Actually, it may already have run out. But if ever a game presented an opportunity to inspire feelings of potential salvation, it’s this one against the Pac-12 frontrunner.
“We don’t have another 10 games,” Romar said Thursday. “We’re down to seven games, and we have two home games coming here. (If) we’re talking about getting an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, we have to make our move. There’s not a whole lot of margin for error in that regard. Fortunately for us, the game in front of us is as big as anyone, and it’s against the No. 7-ranked team in the country. And it’s not a fluke. They’re good. So the timing of it, in terms of urgency, is right here.”
The Huskies hold a 14-9 record, and they’re 3-8 in Pac-12 play, tied for their worst 11-game conference record under Romar (2002-03). As such, they likely need to win each of their remaining games to retain any hope of an NCAA tournament bid.
Many Huskies fans stopped even dreaming of the Big Dance the day 7-foot center Robert Upshaw was dismissed from the team, leaving the Huskies with just one healthy big man in their regular rotation – 6-foot-10 forward Jernard Jarreau probably won’t return until next week – and just eight available scholarship players. And UW’s current five-game losing streak probably chased away even the most ardent Husky optimists.
Romar knows the odds of playing into the postseason are against his Huskies, who haven’t won since Jan. 22 and have allowed each of their past five opponents to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. Bad news, then, that Arizona shoots 49.1 percent, a mark that ranks 10th nationally.
“There are a number of reasons why this next game is a big one,” Romar said. “It’s the next one, and it’s a great team you’re playing against, and it’s an opportunity for us to really, really start to feel good about ourselves.”
The obvious worry for UW fans, of course, is that if Washington couldn’t beat Stanford, California, Oregon or Oregon State without Upshaw’s shot-blocking skills, they’re not any more likely to figure it out against one of the best teams in the country.
Arizona prides itself on defense, though with a defensive field-goal percentage of 41.3 in Pac-12 games, the Wildcats have at least appeared mortal for much of this conference season. They’ve also lost twice on the road to teams they were favored to beat, including an 81-78 defeat last week at Arizona State.
And while the Huskies had trouble scoring during a 64-50 loss at Oregon State on Sunday, it is consistent, fundamentally sound defense that most frequently eludes them.
Romar wants his team to embrace a “blue-collar” defensive identity, something he hasn’t seen, he said, since UW’s loss at Stanford on Jan. 4.
Without it, UW simply isn’t good enough to beat a team as talented as Arizona.
“It just takes a mental focus for 40 minutes for all five guys on the floor,” sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “If one guy kind of does his own thing or messes up, it can make it look like the rest of the four guys aren’t playing defense, which isn’t always the case. (It takes) just being on the same page, as a unit, for 40 minutes.”