You know the saying misery loves company?
Well, the Pac-12’s early success in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — four teams in the Sweet 16 — has certainly left Washington feeling lonely these days.
The conference sent five teams to the Big Dance, and none had a higher seed than No. 5 Colorado.
Oregon, UCLA, USC and Oregon State are still dancing — no other conference has more than two teams remaining in the men’s tournament — and the Pac-12 has posted an astonishing 10-1 record, including a no-contest win for the Ducks in the first round.
Examining the first week of the tournament as it pertains to the Huskies (5-21 overall and 4-16 Pac-12 this season) is akin to taking a Rorschach test.
Staring at the black blobs of ink and trying to draw any type of conclusion says more about you and your state of mind than anything else.
So if you’re watching the tournament this weekend and you’re hopeful about Washington’s future, then you’re one of those glass-half-full people I envy.
But admittedly, I never had that type of relationship with my favorite sports teams. What can I say, I grew up a Cleveland Browns and Cavaliers fan and rooted for the city’s MLB team.
So if you’re a Husky fan and anything like me, a Sweet 16 field that includes four Pac-12 teams and two of your bitter Northwest rivals in Oregon and Gonzaga has to be the worst-case tournament scenario, considering Washington is currently in shambles.
Given the state of the Husky program, which lost five transfers this week and currently has just four returners who played in a game, you have to be wearing purple-colored glasses to see a future in which Washington is playing a meaningful postseason game.
Of course, a Husky optimist will say take a look at Oregon State, which was picked last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. The Beavers are the epitome of March Madness while overcoming low expectations, winning the Pac-12 tournament, drawing the No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament and prevailing as a 6- and an 8.5-point underdog.
But let’s dig a little bit deeper into this.
If we’re comparing 2020-21 rosters, Washington had superior collection of talent — at least on paper — that included a McDonald’s All-American and four four-star recruits (Quade Green, Jamal Bey, RaeQuan Battle and J’Raan Brooks) ranked among ESPN’s top 100 prospects nationally.
By comparison, Oregon State has just one player ranked among ESPN’s top 100 recruits (Ethan Thompson) and yet the Beavers (19-12 and 10-10) nearly quadrupled Washington’s win total and crushed the Huskies 91-71 in their only matchup Feb. 4.
UCLA, and USC to a lesser extent, was a slumbering giant when coach Mike Hopkins led Washington to the 2018-19 Pac-12 regular-season title and the 2019 NCAA tournament. But in the past two years the Huskies lost their superiority over the Los Angeles schools and in essence weakened their status within the fertile southern California recruiting market, which is vital breeding ground for every West Coast program.
And if it wasn’t common knowledge before, Dana Altman is without a doubt the best men’s coach in the Pac-12. Since his arrival in 2010, Oregon is 280-109 (. 720) and 14-6 in the NCAA tournament with five Sweet 16 appearances.
For UW fans, the only thing worse than the Ducks still playing basketball this late into the season is unbeaten Gonzaga making a historic run at the national championship.
Somehow the Husky faithful have been able to claim a rivalry with the tiny team in Spokane despite losing 13 of the past 14 games in the cross-state matchup.
Loyally devoted UW followers propped up the false narrative that the Zags’ march to college basketball dominance would be much harder — and perhaps impossible — if they played in the Pac-12 rather than the top-heavy West Coast Conference.
But if top-seeded Gonzaga wins four more games and becomes the first undefeated NCAA champion since Indiana in 1976, then it’ll be impossible for Husky fans to ignore the Bulldogs in the backyard.
Historically, Washington and Gonzaga haven’t always fished in the same recruiting pond, which allowed the Huskies to land high-profile prospects and win the battles for the state’s top high-school talent.
However, the Zags are now hauling in five-star, one-and-done prospects, which used to be UW’s domain.
Last year, Gonzaga signed Jalen Suggs, the No. 6 overall recruit who is projected to be the third pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
On Friday the Bulldogs received a verbal commitment from Hunter Sallis, a five-star guard who is the No. 6 overall recruit for the Class of 2021, according to 247Sports.com.
And Hopkins’ former boss, Jim Boeheim, isn’t doing him any favors either while leading No. 11 Syracuse to an unexpected Sweet 16 appearance.
The Orange held No. 3 West Virginia to 37.1% shooting on field goals and forced 14 turnovers during a 75-72 win in the first round.
In the second round, Syracuse stifled No. 6 San Diego State for a 78-63 victory while holding the Aztecs to 22.6% shooting from the field and 3-for-20 (15%) from downtown. SDSU, which trailed by 26 points and was rattled offensively, couldn’t get the ball inside and resorted to deep, contested threes in the final minutes.
It was a brief reminder of what the 2-3 zone, Hopkins’ favorite defense that he’s been forced to abandon midway through the season the past two years, is supposed to look like and how destructive it can be when properly executed.
The only good thing about this Sweet 16 for Washington fans is Oregon and Gonzaga appear to be on collision course for a matchup in the Elite Eight.
But if that happens, a Husky rival advances to the Final Four, which would be unbearable from a UW perspective.