The Huskies, without a signature victory on their ledger, have a frighteningly small margin for error, and they squandered most of that by losing to Cal last week.
It has been a feel-good story of the first order, this unexpected Husky flight to the rarefied air of the Pac-12 regular-season conference title.
But now they must take it to the finish line, or it will just be another noble tease, an unrequited redemption tale.
Washington’s stumble at Cal — more of a pratfall, to be honest — has reinserted doubt where for so long there had been none. The path to the NCAA tournament, pre-Berkeley, seemed a fait accompli, a coronation. But now it’s possible to conjure nightmare scenarios where the Huskies get left out of the dance despite the regular-season title, just as they did in 2012.
These final two home games, Oregon State on Wednesday, Oregon on Saturday, suddenly loom as monumental tests, as does the conference tourney next week in Las Vegas. The Huskies, without a signature victory on their ledger, have a frighteningly small margin for error, and they squandered most of that on Thursday at Haas Pavilion.
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The emotion will already be overflowing as the Huskies seniors play their final home games (barring the unthinkable, an NIT berth). And now it will be matched by the urgency of Washington’s desire to silence all the sudden “bubble” talk.
“The energy part will not be a question,’’ Huskies coach Mike Hopkins said on Tuesday. “It will be more so calming them down, and making sure we’re poised and not too juiced.”
Hopkins talked with passion and sincerity Tuesday about how much he loved this Husky team. He talked about the warm spot in his heart he will always have for the four seniors who opted to stay after Lorenzo Romar was fired.
And well he should. The Huskies’ transformation from a 2-16 conference record in 2016-17 to a squad with a chance to reverse that record just two years later is astounding.
“They stayed, they believed, they came together, they worked, they bought in,’’ he said. “To see them have success is really, really rewarding.”
Yes, the Huskies are benefiting greatly from a depleted Pac-12 conference that may give a distorted view of their real place in the college basketball hierarchy. That element can’t be ignored. And they had four chances to post an eye-opening win over a ranked team and couldn’t quite pull it off, though they came agonizingly close against Gonzaga and Minnesota.
But it is still a makeover of the first order, a renaissance that few predicted could be pulled off by a head coach inheriting what seemed to be a hopeless situation. Hopkins had to use every ounce of his persuasive skills to convince incoming freshman phenom Jaylen Nowell to honor his commitment, as well as coaxing those seniors — Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle and Dominic Green — to stay.
Not that anyone thought at the time that it was such a great coup, given the uneven nature of their careers to that point. But Hopkins showed his coaching chops last year, guiding the Huskies to an unexpected 21-win season.
They seemed headed, in fact, to the NCAA berth that has eluded the Huskies since 2011. But after a joyous buzzer-beating win over Arizona, Washington dropped four of its next five conference games to see that dream fizzle.
Now it’s very much alive again, but fraught with sudden danger. Hopkins loves the way his team responded to the Cal loss by beating Stanford — yes, just a one-point win, but any victory in Maples Pavilion is one to savor.
He loves the fact that they’ve not lost back-to-back games all season.
“I think that’s where you know you’ve got a good team, where your experience matters, and where you fight,’’ Hopkins said.
He loves the fact that the chip is back on their shoulder now that the doubters are re-emerging.
“We’ve been promoting the urgency all the time,’’ he said.
And now the final challenge of this potentially magical season sits unambiguously in front of them. Drop these final two conference games, or lose the conference tournament opener — or, worst-case scenario, all three — and big trouble looms.
At one point on Tuesday, in the midst of ruminating on their unbeaten home-court record this season, Hopkins said, “winning’s great, losing’s awful.”
Simple, yet profound. And for these Huskies, with the culmination of a fairy-tale season within their sights, but also unexpectedly vulnerable, all too apt.