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UW’s Upcoming Gauntlet Will Define The Season

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Washington still has a lot to prove and they’ll get their chance starting this Thursday

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday the Huskies defeated Cal by 19 points to move to 14-4 (5-0) and stay in 1st place in the Pac-12 conference. The win was also #1,000 in Hec-Ed which is the most wins of any current building in college basketball. Then on Sunday 5-star center Isaiah Stewart committed to Washington marking the first time in 13 years that a big man that highly ranked agreed to play for UW.

If you’re Mike Hopkins, life is good.

But if the team’s ultimate goal is the NCAA tournament (and it is) then the success and momentum of the last few weeks is irrelevant. How Washington performs in the next 3 weeks beginning with Thursday’s game at Oregon will define the Husky season.

Of the contests during the Dawgs’ current 7-game winning streak the Huskies were favored in 6 of them with Colorado the lone exception. And Colorado’s best player got hurt in the 1st half of that game. Washington was also favored by 9 or more points in 5 of those 7 games.

They face a much tougher gauntlet now as according to KenPom they will be underdogs in 4 of the next 6 and double digit favorites in neither of the other 2. That stretch starts with a road trip to the Oregon schools, comes home for the L.A schools, and finally visits the desert and the Arizona schools.

Washington is currently 1st in Pac-12 play in both offensive and defensive efficiency but it has to be noted that a large part of that is the schedule. The Dawgs have played by far the easiest schedule in the Pac-12 through the first 3 weeks with 3 home games and no games against any team in the top half of the standings. Oregon is the only team in the upcoming stretch that doesn’t have a winning record in Pac-12 play so far but they were the conference favorites coming in and just got back Kenny Wooten from injury.

Here are the KenPom rankings of each school that UW plays over the next 3 weeks: Oregon- 53, OSU- 67, USC- 100, UCLA- 86, Arizona- 51, ASU- 60. Washington has beaten exactly 0 top-86 teams to this point in the season and Colorado is the only top-130 win they have away from home. Suffice it to say that the Huskies still have a lot to prove.

Going into this challenging stretch let’s set the stage for where Washington stands right now and what each possible record would mean for the season and a potential Pac-12 title or NCAA tournament berth.

Currently the Huskies sit as the 35th ranked team in my NCAA tournament predictor which would be good for a #9 seed. Most bracketologists have them in the 9/10 range and they’ve separated themselves, for now, as the top team in the conference. However, Washington is one of only six teams from traditional multi-bid conferences who I have as currently in the tournament despite 0 Quadrant 1 wins and their 2 combined Q1/Q2 wins is the 2nd fewest of any potential at-large team. The resume still needs a big boost.

6-0 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 2.92%)

If Washington runs the table over the next 3 weeks then they will have done everything within their power to clinch an NCAA tournament bid. If you use the strictest version of the term lock to mean “could lose all remaining games and still get in” then they wouldn’t be a lock but they could certainly afford a couple of upset losses at that point. It would likely give them at least 3 Q1 wins while putting them at 11-0 in Pac-12 play. At that point their NET rating probably soars into the teens and all they will need to do is win the gimmes. If this is what happens then Hopkins will have clinched a 2nd consecutive Pac-12 coach of the year award and will get some buzz for the national award although I don’t think he’d have a chance to actually win it unless UW truly won out through the Pac-12 tournament.

5-1 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 15.17%)

Emerging with just one loss would mean a 3-1 record on the road against 4 teams in the top half of the conference and the continuation of a perfect home record. Washington can afford one loss in this stretch and certainly see their NCAA hopes increase. That would put the Huskies at 19-5 (10-1) while being favored in all of their remaining 7 games. Unless the one team they lose to also goes undefeated during this stretch then UW’s still in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament and somewhere in the 6-9 seed range in most bracketologist’s predictions. A perfect record is probably greedy for UW fans to think about but this is a realistic stretch goal if the team plays up to its potential.

4-2 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 31.6%)

This is the most likely scenario for this team and follows the pattern that generally gets you into the NCAA tournament in most years. Sweep at home and split your road trips. Wins at say Oregon and Arizona would compensate for losses at OSU and ASU and also probably give you a slight boost. At the end of a 4-2 stretch Washington would likely still find itself in the 30’s in the NET rankings but would be sure to emerge with at least one if not two Q1 wins which is the one thing most lacking on their resume. Depending on how convincing the wins and losses are I could see them being predicted from anywhere between a #7 seed and a #11 seed but they’d still be in the vast majority of brackets. UW would also likely still be in 1st place in the conference but they probably wouldn’t have a great deal of wiggle room.

3-3 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 29.79%)

Here’s the inflection point where the season would start to take a downward turn. This would mean either getting swept on one of the road trips or dropping their 1st home game to one of the L.A schools. Washington is still likely getting its first Q1 win but if the team they beat starts to slip then that isn’t even a guarantee. It would put the Huskies at 17-7 (8-3) which would be solid in an average Pac-12 year but just isn’t good enough in this version of the conference. Most predictions would have the Huskies on the bubble whether in as a #11 seed or in the first four out. At that point UW could afford at most 1 more loss the rest of the season to have any confidence going into Selection Sunday. In that worst case scenario with this record they would at least be viewed as a potential #1 seed in the NIT which is not what Husky fans want but at least would be something.

2-4 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 16.2%)

This is where we likely enter Pac-12 tournament champion or bust territory. A 2-4 record essentially guarantees either that the Huskies won’t have a perfect home mark or that they’ll end the season with 0 quality road wins. Neither sounds appealing. It’s possible if things break their way that the Huskies could win out in the regular season and lose in the finals of the Pac-12 tournament and secure an at-large bid at essentially 25-9 (14-4) but at this point I wouldn’t feel great about that record. It also puts the Huskies in dubious position to still end up with a top-2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament which I think will be key with only 6 teams that I think are capable of winning it. The NIT would still be a possibility with this record but wouldn’t necessarily be likely unless they swept the final 7 games after this.

1-5 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 3.95%)

This would officially kill any hope of an at large berth and also call into question whether an NIT berth is still realistic. It’s certainly possible that if the Huskies emerged from this stretch at 1-5 that they wouldn’t own a single win over a KenPom top-100 team and we’d view the last month as a mirage entirely fueled by an easy schedule. Washington would likely still finish with a winning conference record and have a shot at the NIT if they closed strong but Hop wouldn’t get the “it’s your 1st year” pass that he did last year when Washington swooned at the end of the season.

0-6 Record (Approximate Likelihood- 0.37%)

Obviously this would be the apocalypse. Given the percentage above this would pretty much have to mean at least one and probably multiple serious injuries to Husky starters given their depth. It would end any chance that Washington would achieve any of their goals this season. And there’s no more reason to bring this kind of negativity into the world. Sorry.

Washington faced a similar 6-game stretch (although not quite as tough) in the middle of conference play last season. The major difference is that last year UW was 5-3 in Pac-12 play at the beginning of it rather than 5-0. They swept the Arizona schools at home and an NCAA berth seemed all but guaranteed but then Washington dropped the next 3 in a row at the Oregon schools plus home against Utah and the conversation became about the NIT. This Husky team experienced the pain from a let down of expectations and the hope is that they’ve grown both in physical and mental strength from that point and are determined to not let it happen again. We’ll find out starting tomorrow night.

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