The ‘Us against Everybody’ narrative that sports teams often adopt isn’t new or particularly creative.
Still, the Washington men’s basketball team has gotten a lot of mileage from the so-called disrespect heaped upon the Huskies at the start of the season, which has seemingly galvanized a team of seven newcomers and become something of a rallying cry.
“In the regular season they picked us 13th and we won 11 (Pac-12) games,” coach Mike Hopkins said, noting UW’s reversal from 5-21 and 4-16 last season to 16-14 and 11-9 this season. “I would give us a high grade for that. We have shown incredible resiliency and toughness.”
For the record, the Huskies were picked 11th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, but why let the facts get in the way of an effective galvanizing tool for a team of disjointed parts back in October when training camp began.
After posting a disappointing 5-5 record against nonconference opponents, an impressive 8-4 start to the Pac-12 season, four straight losses and a 3-1 record to end the regular season, the Huskies have one week — or day, depending on the results — to redefine their season.
No. 6 seed Washington begins the Pac-12 tournament with a first-round matchup against No. 11 seed Utah (11-19) at 8:30 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
UW meets No. 3 seed USC (25-6) in the quarterfinals if it’s able to beat the Utes for a third straight time this season.
“I think the sky is the limit the way we’re playing right now,” senior guard Terrell Brown Jr. said. “We’re one of the hottest teams going into the tournament, for sure. We’re playing together and we’re playing defense, and we know defense wins games and championships.
“As long as we continue to play defense, it’s going to be hard for anybody to score, as long as we stay together and keep believing. I’ve been saying believe and believe the whole season as a team. And we’re going to keep on believing in ourselves.”
Hopkins is making his fifth trip to the Pac-12 tournament, where he’s posted a 2-4 record, including three first-round defeats and a 2-1 run to the 2019 championship game.
A year ago, No. 10 seed Washington lost 98-95 to No. 7 Utah after allowing the Utes to convert 14 of 26 three-pointers. The score doesn’t accurately reflect a game in which UW trailed by 19 points (87-68) in the final five minutes.
However, the Huskies collected close wins over Utah this season — 77-73 in double overtime on Jan. 29 and 74-68 on Jan. 6 — and Hopkins expects another nail-biter.
“Like in the NCAA tournament, your seed matters (and) this will be our second-highest seed,” Hopkins said. “When you start getting into these tournaments, everybody knows each other. So (the games) are coming down to the end. How you execute is going to be really big.
“Our luxury is that we have a veteran team. We’re playing fairly well, and when you’re playing a team for the third time, there’s no secrets. You’ve got to be able to execute your game plan and make some plays, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”
It’s a win-or-go home scenario for Washington, which needs to capture the Pac-12 tournament to advance to the NCAAs. The Huskies are also sitting on the NIT bubble and would need 2-3 wins to garner serious consideration for the 32-team tournament.
“The greatest thing about this team is their maturity,” Hopkins said, noting UW’s nine seniors. “The opportunity that we have in front of us, they’re really excited for it. Vegas is fun. Vegas is exciting. But they know it’s a business trip.
“I love that we play an 8:30 (p.m.) game so we can watch some games before that and that kind of gives you the March feel. Once you start seeing that hearing the (CBS’s NCAA tournament theme song), if you’re a baller, a hooper and a competitor that really gets you excited to play.”
Washington posted a 2-1 record this season in neutral-site games, including an 87-76 win over South Dakota State on Nov. 23 that’s arguably its best victory of the season.
After four months and 30 games, Hopkins isn’t tinkering with the script that’s gotten UW this far.
The Huskies will lean heavily on All-Pac-12 performer Brown, who leads the conference in scoring at 21.7 points per game.
They’ll rely on a 2-3 zone that’s allowed an average of 68 points in their last three wins.
If senior forward Nate Roberts, who is averaging 15 points and 16 rebounds in the past two games, can’t continue his late-season dominance inside, then UW will need to find someone to generate perimeter points.
Two likely candidates are Emmitt Matthews Jr. and Cole Bajema.
As a freshman at West Virginia, Matthews tallied a career-high 28 points in the 2019 Big 12 tournament title game. And in a pair of games this season against Utah, Bajema drained 7 of 11 three-pointers off the bench.
Before taking the court Wednesday night, Hopkins will attempt to impart two messages to the Huskies before the biggest game of the season.
“No. 1: Believe that you can win every game you play,” he said. “And No. 2: Leave it all out there and have no regrets. You’e got to play with no fear and no regrets.
“Get an open shot, knock it down. Do what you do well. We’re not going to have a secret play that we put in. Play great defense. Rebound the basketball. And share the ball on offense.”
— Next season Washington will play in the Wooden Legacy, a two-day, four-team tournament in Anaheim, California, that will include Saint Mary’s, Fresno State and Vanderbilt. The Huskies won the Wooden Legacy in 2014.