BOULDER, Colo. — Nearing the midpoint of the Pac-12 season, the Huskies are tied for last in the conference standings.
Let that sink in for a second.
Washington concludes the first half of league play with stiff tests at No. 23 Colorado at 6 p.m. Saturday and returns home to face No. 22 Arizona on Thursday.
The term “must-win” gets thrown around too often in sports, so let’s call this a pivotal stretch of the season for the Huskies to resuscitate their fading NCAA tournament hopes.
With 11 regular-season games remaining, time is running out on Washington (12-8, 2-5 Pac-12), which has lost six of its last eight games.
“Tonight was the continuation of a period of frustration, disappointment and heartbreak for this young Husky squad,” ESPN analyst Bill Walton said after Washington blew a 12-point second-half lead and lost 67-66 at Utah on Thursday. “The beautiful thing about basketball is that you start again fresh the next day.
“This is a good team with good players and a good coach. Trust me. But these young guys are 18 and 19 years old. They’re the defending Pac-12 champions and trying to live up to that legacy, but it’s never easy. We’re seeing how difficult it can be to find yourself as a team.”
Discovering their identity has been an elusive and often frustrating pursuit for the Huskies, who began the season with Final Four aspirations built largely on the promise of newcomers Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, who are projected first-round picks in this summer’s NBA draft.
The freshman forwards lead Washington in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Stewart averages 18.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while McDaniels is 13.1, 6.4 and 1.5.
Yet, the Huskies’ inexperience largely explains why they’ve been unable to close out contests and have lost four games in which they’ve held a double-digit lead in the second half.
“A lot of guys haven’t really been in close-game situations,” junior forward Hameir Wright said. “You can’t really explain it. It’s some things that have to work itself out and as team we have get stronger being able to control leads and control games.”
Can the Huskies fix their late-game problems and save their season? Perhaps, but not to the point where UW is making a postseason trip to Atlanta.
The bigger question is how did the Huskies fall so far off their preseason projections?
UW detractors will point to Hopkins, the team’s overreliance on Stewart, the deficiencies of the 2-3 zone defense or the lack of support from the supporting cast.
All of those factors are to blame, as well as the loss of Quade Green, which created a gaping chasm in the middle of the offense that still has not been filled after several weeks.
Washington is 1-4 without its sophomore point guard, who is academically ineligible.
The Huskies were averaging 73.6 points, 13.7 assists and 14.7 turnovers while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 33.3 percent on three-pointers in 15 games with Green.
In five games without Green, UW is averaging 60.8 points, 10 assists, 14.4 turnovers while shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 29.9 percent on three-pointers.
At varying times, Hopkins has relied on sophomore wing Jamal Bey, sophomore point guard Elijah Hardy and freshman playmaker Marcus Tsohonis to run the team.
Collectively, the trio has surpassed Green’s production — he averaged 11.6 points, 5.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds — but UW has sorely missed his leadership during their late-game collapses.
“It goes back to everybody having to do a little more,” Hopkins said. “It doesn’t have to be one person that (replaces Green). One more assist. One more rebound. Execute a little better to get us in our offense.
“We have enough good players to win games. But the focus at the end of games has to be heightened.”
Surprisingly, the Huskies had their best finish against then-No. 16 Baylor (now No. 1) in a comeback 67-64 win in the season opener.
Washington trailed 63-53 with 5:38 remaining before closing the game with a 14-1 run that held the Bears without a field goal.
Where did that UW team go?
In the past two games, the Huskies have faltered and fallen apart in the final minutes, including a 64-61 loss to No. 12 Oregon after holding a 16-point lead in the second half.
“We got to learn how to keep our foot on the pedal,” Wright said. “We got to realize the reason why we have leads in the first place is because of how good we are and I feel like we lose sight of that sometimes and just try to play to the score rather than play the game and that can come back and bit you in the long run.”
Hopkins has questioned his substitution patterns and criticized the team’s inability to avoid turnovers, defend three-point shooters and make clutch free throws.
Yet, he believes the Huskies are close to a breakthrough.
“We’re right there,” Hopkins said. “I just want to coach us to our best game. That’s my goal. I want to coach us to be the team that we can be.”