The Huskies head to Las Vegas needing a miraculous March Madness finish to avoid — depending on how things go this week — ranking among the worst teams in Pac-12 men’s basketball history.
The odds are stacked against No. 10 seed Washington, which begins the Pac-12 tournament against No. 7 Utah at 4 p.m. Wednesday, as a 250-1 underdog to win four games in as many days and hoist the championship trophy Saturday night.
Heck, getting out of the first round will be a monumental challenge for UW (5-20), which split a pair of regular-season games against Utah (11-12). The Utes won the first matchup 76-62 in Salt Lake City on Dec. 3.
“First and foremost, I think we just need to play hard,” junior guard Jamal Bey said Monday during a Zoom call. “Sometimes, especially with a tough season like we had, we get down on ourselves.
“If we come in and we play hard and listen to what coach has to say, follow the game plan, then I think we’ll have a pretty good shot to beat them.”
Bey led the Huskies to an 83-79 win over Utah on Jan. 24 at Alaska Airlines Arena while tallying a career-high 28 points, five rebounds and four steals.
Since then, Washington lost nine of 11 games, including three straight defeats to end the regular season.
“The biggest thing that we have to do is really worry about us,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “I do believe that matchups are important, but we’ve been able to play well against them in the second game.
“I think we learned from that game and the problems that they pose. From rebounding, we’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to defend without fouling, which was one of the keys in that game. Obviously, we’ve been successful when we’ve shot the ball well from the three-point line. So I think those three areas will be key in our game against Utah.”
Theoretically, the Huskies should be the more-rested team considering their previous game was Feb. 27 while Utah wrapped up its regular season last Saturday.
However, it remains to be seen if the 11-day layoff will prove to be advantageous for UW, which finished the regular season playing eight games in 17 days.
“We’ll see on Wednesday,” Hopkins said. “I don’t think anybody knows. Hopefully with the rest we’ll be able to go out there and have great energy and go out and execute, but there’s been times where we had a pretty long layoff and we came out and we didn’t play great.”
That’s been the issue with Hopkins and Huskies. Too often the coach has been unable to accurately assess what kind of outing he’ll receive from key players who have produced wildly inconsistent performances.
Take Bey, for instance.
In the first eight games, the second-year starter failed to score in double figures and was an afterthought in the offense.
But then there’s other nights when he looks like an emerging Pac-12 star like he did in the last matchup against Utah when he connected on 10 of 11 shots, including all four three-point attempts.
What’s even more puzzling is why Bey, the Pac-12 leader in three-point shooting percentage (50.7%), ranks 46th in the conference with just 2.7 three-point attempts per game.
“I wish he shot it more,” Hopkins said. “He’s too unselfish, but he’s a heck of a player and that’s been one of the bright spots on the season is his ability to hit the open shot.”
Bey said: “I try to take shots that I feel like I can make. If I don’t feel comfortable shooting that or feeling like another defender is coming, I’m going to always make the extra pass. Try to make my team better and trust in my team, because I know if it’s reversed and I feel like if I’m open, they’ll find me every time.”
Barring a fairy-tale finish, the Huskies will end an unprecedented season played during a pandemic this week back in Las Vegas, where they started the season on Nov. 29 with an 86-52 loss to then-No. 2 Baylor.
“They told us actually earlier in the week that we won’t be able to see anybody outside of our bubble,” said Bey, a Las Vegas native who starred at Bishop Gorman High, when asked about playing in front of family and friends at T-Mobile Arena. “So that’s unfortunate, but we get tickets. I’ll be able to see them from the court and say hi. Not say hi, but wave at them. It’s going to be amazing to see them and see them actually at a game again. It’s going to be amazing.”
Hopkins is 2-3 in the Pac-12 tournament, including first-round losses in 2020 (a 77-70 defeat versus No. 5 Arizona) and 2018 (a 69-66 overtime loss against No. 10 Oregon State). UW lost 68-48 to Oregon in the 2019 title game.
“One game at a time,” Hopkins said. “You do whatever you can (to win the first game). You can’t think about OK, well, I’m going to try and save energy for Game 2 or Game 3. … You’ve gotta go out and win Game 1. That’s what it is. And if you can do that and we’re fortunate enough to play well and do that, you’ve got to get ready for Game 2.”
The UW-Utah winner meets No. 2 USC in the quarterfinals with a possible matchup against No. 3 Colorado in the semifinals. No. 1 Oregon and No. 4 UCLA are on the other side of the bracket.
“I think it would mean the world to come out and get a run off and even win it,” Bey said. “That’s what I believe we can do if we do what we need to do, play hard enough and execute what coach has to say. I think we’ll have a chance.”
— Washington Huskies senior guard Quade Green received All-Pac-12 honorable-mention recognition.