Washington has shown it can play with any team in the country and could be a threat in the Pac-12, but first it has to show it can win at Utah, where it has lost five in a row.
In some ways, this seems like the Huskies’ least anticipated road trip on the Pac-12 schedule.
You got two teams that don’t have much history in the conference. You got two teams that were on the bottom half of the Pac-12 preseason media poll. And you got two teams that haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2016.
But for Washington fans, I have a feeling the games vs. Utah and Colorado this week represent more than a compulsory visit to the mountains. I think it also has the chance to show people how high their team has climbed.
At this point, it’s hard to know what to make of this year’s Huskies. They have a respectable 10 wins in 14 games (more than they had in total two seasons ago), fell by just two points to Gonzaga in Spokane, and have seen their top-scorer, Jaylen Nowell, improve his shooting efficiency dramatically.
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But they also lack a signature win and fell by double digits to Auburn and Virginia Tech — the two other ranked teams they’ve faced this year. Maybe it’s not fair, but the instant revival Mike Hopkins provided this team as a rookie head coach last year has raised expectations for 2019. Are the Huskies en route to meeting them?
That might take more than a road trip to determine, but we know that the seniors on this squad have never beaten Utah. In fact, save for the overtime loss to the Utes in 2016, they’ve never gotten closer than eight points.
Had they snatched one vs. the Utes last season, an NCAA tournament bid may very well occurred. And though it’s uncertain whether a loss will have similar ramifications this year, it’s likely that a road sweep will have significant implications for the Dawgs down the road.
There were over 8,000 fans in Hec Ed for the Huskies’ conference opener vs. Washington State on Saturday. It’s hard to imagine the arena would be as packed when Stanford and California come to town next week if Washington underperforms this week.
Everyone who follows this team knows the effect an inspiring road trip can have on home attendance. And everyone knows how a raucous crowd can turn a regular game into a full-fledged event.
It wasn’t long ago that Seattle worried it would be without an entertaining winter sport for years. But a successful Huskies team? That would more than pass the time until the NHL gets here.
It looks as though they have the talent. Nowell — who is averaging 17.3 points per game — has watched his field-goal percentage jump from .451 to .532 since last year, while his three-point percentage has surged from .351 to .392. When your scoring average increases by more than a point despite shooting one fewer shot per game, that’s substantial progress.
They also just watched David Crisp, who is shooting about two fewer shots per game this season, come off what may have been the best game of his career Saturday (23 points on 7 of 11 shooting), while Naziah Carter has tallied 41 points over his past four games while shooting 17 of 30 from the field.
Throw in typical production from Noah Dickerson (14.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, .533 FG%) and Matisse Thybulle (9.7 points, 2.9 steals, 2.1 blocks) and you have a team that can beat anyone in the conference.
But it starts against Utah Thursday.
With Washington football making its Rose Bowl run, and the Seahawks improbably reaching the postseason, there hasn’t been much attention on UW hoops. Now that those teams’ seasons are done, and the decimated Mariners are several weeks from spring training, all eyes are on these Huskies.
People want a reason to flood Hec Ed. People want a reason to wear out their larynxes. People want a reason to in a team they think can entertain them all the way through March.
This road trip could help provide that reason.