Mike Hopkins wants to cast the Huskies as a scrappy and gritty bunch of overachieving underdogs, which may have been true a few weeks ago, but flies in contrast to their current situation.
After earning a bye for the first round, No. 1 seed Washington enters Thursday’s noon Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against No. 8 USC, which knocked off two-time defending champion Arizona 78-65 Wednesday.
In a listless league that’s been battered on all fronts due to a historically horrendous nonconference performance, Washington (24-7) has been a giant among diminished opponents and the surest bet in what is otherwise a wide-open tournament.
The Huskies opened as a 5-2 favorite to win the title in the Westgate Sportsbook, followed by No. 2 seed Arizona State and No. 6 Oregon at 4-1 and No. 4 Oregon State at 5-1.
However, 10 teams had odds of 25-1 or less, including Arizona.
Washington, which has a 2-7 record in the Pac-12 tournament since it expanded in 2012, isn’t accustomed to its lofty perch in postseason play.
The last time the Huskies were a No. 1 seed, they lost 86-84 in the quarterfinals to Oregon State seven years ago.
UW has won three conference tournament titles, once as a No. 2 seed in 2005 and twice as a No. 3 seed in 2010 and ’11.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 seed has won nine of 21 conference titles, including three times in the past four years.
No matter how Hopkins tries to spin it, the Huskies are learning a lesson that accompanies their top seeding: With great power comes great responsibility — or at the very least, great expectations.
Let’s remove the NCAA tournament ramifications and believe — as Hopkins asserted — that UW has already done enough to merit an at-large berth to the Big Dance.
Still, another early exit in Las Vegas would sour what has been a feel-good season of redemption for a team that finished 9-22 two years ago.
“We had an incredible season,” Hopkins said. “We’re in game-by-game mode right now. (Regular season) conference is over. This is a new season. This is the third season right now and it’s 0-0. That’s why they call it March Madness. There’s upsets. … There’s so much great drama and competition.
“We want to play great basketball. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got a really good team that for a long period of time had been playing great and we need to get back to that.”
For various reasons ranging from fatigue to an inability to make in-game adjustments and poor execution at critical moments, Washington has faltered in the past two weeks.
Before a 76-73 upset at California on Feb. 28, the Huskies had won 15 of the previous 16 games by an average margin of 12.3 points. During that stretch, they averaged 71.6 points and allowed just 60.5.
However in the past four games, UW is averaging 65.8 points and allowing 67.
In their last outing — a 55-47 defeat to Oregon in Saturday’s regular-season finale — the Huskies were inept offensively while scoring a season-low in points.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Hopkins said. “We haven’t. We played it in the stretch in the middle where we were elite. That’s the ebbs and flows. You’re not going to play great every game, but you find ways to win and this team has.
“The last four games reminded me a little bit of where we were in the nonconference (when) we put together halves and we didn’t put together a whole (game).”
Washington was 9-4 in nonconference play, including losses at No. 11 Auburn (88-66) at No. 1 Gonzaga (81-79) and on the road against No. 13 Virginia Tech (73-61) and Minnesota (68-66).
Still, Hopkins believes the Huskies’ nonconference schedule that’s rated 15th nationally and a 15-3 run to the Pac-12 regular-season championship has prepared them for what they’ll face this week in Las Vegas.
“Hopefully those experiences have gotten us to the point where we can go and reference when we’re at our best this is what we do,” he said. “And when we’re at our worst, this is what it is.”
Hopkins doesn’t adhere to the flipping the switch metaphor, but during his 22 years as a Syracuse assistant he’s been a part of two teams that stumbled into the postseason before abruptly going on championship winning streaks.
In 2004-05, the Orange lost five of its last nine regular-season contests before winning the Big East tournament. The next season, Syracuse had a three-game losing streak before winning four straight games to repeat as conference tournament champs.
“You just get rolling at the right time and anything can happen,” Hopkins said. “That’s what makes the tournament so great.”