Back when the Pac-12 was smaller and perhaps more competitive, the blueprint to winning a regular-season conference title went something like this: Split on the road and hold serve at home.
To that end, the Washington men’s basketball team is off to a rousing start in the conference race thanks to a surprising league-opening win at Arizona State.
But if the Huskies (9-5, 1-1 Pac-12) are going to sustain the momentum gained from a pair of strong showings in the Arizona desert last week, they’ll have to protect their turf starting 8 p.m. Wednesday in the home-opener against Utah (12-2, 1-1) at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“It’s kind of like as a kid growing up when you have your hoop in front of your house and somebody comes and plays against you on your hoop, you don’t want that person to just come in and beat you,” he said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
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A year ago, Utah stunned Washington and handed the Huskies a 74-65 loss in Seattle, which snapped UW’s four-game winning streak and began a four-game skid.
Washington is seemingly facing another early crossroad.
The Huskies knew their postseason dreams would be a fantasy if they continued playing the porous defense they exhibited during the nonconference season when they allowed 79.2 points per game and opponents shot 49.6 percent from the field.
Against No. 1 Arizona and Arizona State, Washington surrendered an average of 68 points and held both teams to a combined 40.9 percent shooting
“We feel like we’re a lot better team than we were a month ago,” freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “There’s even more confidence because we’ve seen the fruits of our labor and we’ve seen the hard work that we’ve been putting in start to pay off.
“We’re really looking forward to moving forward.”
Rebounding from last season’s 15-18 finish, Utah is also buoyed by confidence after steamrolling through a less-than-challenging nonconference schedule ranked 350th among 351 teams by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
However, the Utes sent a ripple through the Pac-12 when they nearly upset then-No.10 Oregon in the conference opener before falling 70-68 in overtime. On Saturday, Utah had no trouble knocking off Oregon State, 80-69.
“If you follow our conference closely, Utah gave teams fits last year,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Utah is going to guard and they’re going to be very physical and they’re going to be tough-minded.”
In his third second season with the Utes, coach Larry Krystowiak has revamped a roster that went 6-25 during his first season.
Sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge leads Utah in scoring (17.0 points per game) and rebounds (8.0) while junior-college transfer Delon Wright (14.8 ppg.) and sophomore Brandon Taylor (11.7) comprise a much-improved backcourt that ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring.
Still, Utah has to prove it can win away from home.
The Utes have played just one road game this season and they’re 4-28 that past three years away from home.
”They’re a young team so they’ll have some challenges on the road like we all do,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “College basketball is a home court sport and you got to take care of business at home.””
Pac-12 teams were 7-3 at home last week.
Utah was riding a four-game road losing streak before last year’s win at Washington. It was the Utes’ only road win in the conference last season.
When asked what he remembers from that game, Simmons said: “I remember they beat us. That’s all I remember.”
• Washington will wear a patch with the initials “MH” on their jerseys the remainder of the season to honor former legendary coach Marv Harshman, who died last year.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @percyallen.