Pac-12 Tournament Primer: Washington Huskies

March 3, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar walks off the court at the end of the game against the UCLA Bruins at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. UCLA won 75-69. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Even when they have a much better team, winning at UCLA always seems to be a very tough task for the Washington Huskies. Particularly frustrating for the Huskies this time around is that zero blame can be placed on the daunting mystique of Pauley Pavilion as the Huskies fell to a inferior Bruin squad on the not so hallowed hardwood of the LA Sports Arena with so much on the line.

It does appear that a Sports Illustrated article in which Ben Howland kind of comes off like the creepily awkward guy everyone has in their office and a handful of former and current Bruins sound like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries may have lit a fire under the team. Though the Huskies should have pulled out the win, it cannot be ignored that the Bruins clownstomped Washington State by 32 on Thursday and look like they might be figuring out how to utilize their size and talent.

Despite being bailed out by Stanford, Saturday’s loss hurts more than it seems like it should and could put a wrench in the yearly late season surge and conference tournament run the Huskies have seemed to turn into a February/March tradition. The yearly script for Romar’s teams seem to be to loss heartbreaking marquee out-of-conference games, underachieve early in the conference schedule and then turn it on late and finally play to their potential in the conference tournament.

This formula has actually worked pretty well but leaves Romar very vulnerable to serious scrutiny should they fall apart. Saturday’s loss coupled with a realistically possible Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal defeat to Oregon State or Washington State could result in the Huskies missing the 2012 NCAA tournament. An NIT trip for the most talented team in the Pac-12 in what might be the weakest year in conference history would be inexcusable.

This team has the potential to be the kind of 7 or 8 seed that no one wants to face (much like they were last year) but can’t seem to put it together. The combination of two ultra-athletic guards who can score with anyone in the country, a deadly sharpshooter, a distributing point guard and a shoot blocking seven-footer running on all cylinders should beat anyone in the country, but a lack of veteran leadership and defensive intensity seems to be holding the Huskies back.

Unlike college football, college basketball’s playoff format really favors who can stay healthy, get the right matchups and play the best at the end of the season, so a Sweet 16 run is still very much a possibility. The problem with the Huskies though is that their recent modus operandi of underachieving early in the season and turning it on at the end of the year holds the program back from reaching new heights. Until they can start locking in better seeds in the NCAA tournament, Washington will continue to be stuck with tough matchups too early in the tournament and bow out, as they did last year. Last year’s team should have been an Elite 8 team at least but because they had a lousy seed, they ran into North Carolina much too early in the tournament and lost a tough contest.

There is a good chance that the Huskies will lose their two best players after this season and it will likely be a while before they have two first round draft picks on the same team again. Romar usually seems to rebound well from losing talent but with the Huskies facing a lot of questions this off-season, a decent NCAA tournament run is essential for sustaining the program and keeping fans happy.

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