Huskies end up where they expected
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- This isn't the first time Washington has been forgotten.
In 2007, when Quincy Pondexter was a freshman, he and his teammates watched the NCAA selection show hoping to hear their name called. An at-large berth was a reach at the time, considering the Huskies were 8-10 in the Pac-10, 19-13 overall.
When Washington's name wasn't called, the players and staff simply went to the locker room to watch the NIT selection show on ESPNU, anticipating the Huskies would appear on the screen. As they watched the television, the players had their sneakers and practice gear on, ready to practice as soon as their opponent was confirmed.
"Suddenly, a few guys said, 'Did anyone see our name?' We look up and realized that we didn't," said Pondexter, now a senior on the Huskies. "We were the last team cut off in the Pac-10. No one wanted to feel that ever again."
Washington stayed home that season. This was before the CBI or CIT. The Huskies had nothing. Their season ended with a thud.
A year later, the Huskies were in the inaugural CBI, losing at home in the first round to Valparaiso. Last season, the Huskies won the Pac-10 regular-season title and earned an NCAA at-large berth and lost in the second round.
This season began with promise, as the Huskies were ranked No. 13 in the preseason rankings. But things went awry as the Huskies lost to Georgetown and Texas Tech in their nonconference schedule and limped to a 3-5 record to begin Pac-10 play.
They were forgotten again.
"I thought about that year," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of Pondexter's freshman season when the Huskies had no postseason home. "I mentioned it to the team a few times. We were one road trip away that season from being an NCAA team. Do that and we're 9-9, not 8-10. The conference got six teams into the NCAA. I'm thinking we're at least NIT. We weren't anything."
That's why, when the Huskies returned from Los Angeles on Jan. 23 after consecutive losses to UCLA and USC, Romar told the team it had better win every game or it wouldn't get a bid to the NCAA. He didn't trust any other postseason tournament, either.
Since then, the Huskies have won 14 of their past 16 games, including nine in a row.
"The perception outside of the West Coast is that we should just wait until next year," Romar said. "People counted us for dead, and in their minds, we may be still dead. I've seen it so many times in sports. People write teams off and then all of a sudden they're back. We expect to win. "
There is no getting around the Pac-10's down season. You can't deny the facts. The league didn't perform well in nonconference games. Standard-bearer UCLA finished below .500; USC's season ended early because of a self-imposed postseason ban; one-time upstarts Oregon and Oregon State struggled to find their way; Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances came to an end; Washington State showed promise but finished at the bottom of the league standings; and Stanford struggled to find consistency. It all contributed to the poor perception of the Pac-10.
Arizona State's challenging at the top of the league, despite losing a top-five pick in James Harden, was a surprise. And Cal played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, though the regular-season champs didn't win any of those games against Syracuse, Kansas and New Mexico.
All told, the rap on the Pac-10 was fair.
But Washington's talent level was never in question. Back in the fall, if you had predicted that Washington would have to beat Marquette and New Mexico to reach the Sweet 16, no one would have blinked, though the assumption would be that the Huskies would be the higher seed, not the No. 11.
"You would have said this is what they were supposed to be," Romar said. "But because of the seed, the Cinderella tag is put on you as a No. 11 seed."
This is no Cinderella. When the Huskies meet West Virginia in the Carrier Dome on Thursday night, they can match the Mountaineers in talent and recent history.
"We've won two conference tournaments and one regular-season title and been to three Sweet 16s in the last six years," Romar said. "I looked, and programs like Pitt, West Virginia and Boston College have done well the last seven years, have a lot of wins. But what those programs don't have is a long history and tradition. It takes a while to build that consistent high-level tradition and get that type of recognition."
A big reason for this season's underachievement is that Washington had trouble adjusting to life without Jon Brockman and, to a lesser extent, Justin Dentmon. Brockman was Mr. Everything for the Huskies, gathering boards and taking plenty of pressure off everyone else inside. His replacement was supposed to be Charles Garcia. But Garcia wasn't admitted into Washington, so instead he took his NBA game to Seattle University to play for former Huskies assistant Cameron Dollar.
High-profile recruit Abdul Gaddy, who was once destined for Memphis and John Calipari or Arizona and Lute Olson, didn't live up to the hype to replace Dentmon and has struggled to find his way in the rotation.
"What Jon did for us was contagious," Pondexter said. "It took a little bit of time. He had that nitty-gritty game. He would be flying around doing all the little things, and we didn't have that from everybody."
The learning curve hit the Huskies hardest in a January stretch that saw them lose five of seven games.
"The perception of the Pac-10 was so bad that when we would lose, it seemed like the whole world was coming down," Pondexter said. "Every team struggles, but ours seemed harder than most."
The Huskies have been a different team since that swoon, locking in defensively, with Pondexter as the focus inside and Isaiah Thomas outside. The play of three primary role players -- Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday -- also has picked up recently.
"Bryan-Amaning gave us an inside presence; Justin Holiday turned into a defensive stopper; we got rebounds and deflections," Romar said. "Roles are defined now. We've all gained confidence. Now we're a team."
A team that continues to be somewhat of an afterthought, especially in the East Regional. Don't forget this is a team that has produced its share of NBA talent in recent years and was a No. 1 seed in 2005. Yet in Syracuse, the Huskies find themselves in a hotel far from the Carrier Dome, near a highway intersection and next to an air conditioning plant. No. 12 Cornell, from nearby Ithaca, is the local favorite and has captured the nation with its underdog mentality. Kentucky is the major rock band, the U2 of this bracket, and comes with the largest traveling stage presence. West Virginia has more national recognition, certainly here in the East, because of coach Bob Huggins, its late-game star player in Da'Sean Butler and the memory of a highly watched Big East tournament title game against Georgetown two weeks ago.
Washington won the Pac-10 tournament over regular-season champ Cal before friends and family at L.A.'s Staples Center. Yawn.
"It's been tough to get people to jump on our bandwagon," Romar said. "That's on us to keep winning."And the Huskies are capable of doing just that. If they do, they might finally get everyone to realize that they're hardly a fluke. They're simply performing the way they were expected to in the preseason, maintaining a successful track record in the NCAA tournament in recent seasons.
"We expect to be a top-25 team every year, a tournament team every year," said Pondexter, the Huskies' lone senior. "We had two down years. But we're back."
Yes, they are. And if they beat West Virginia to get to the Elite Eight, the Huskies might not be forgotten again.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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