January was a charmed month for the UW basketball team. It started with a non-conference win over Cal State Fullerton and a victory over rival Washington State to start Pac-12 play. The Huskies proceeded to win six more Pac-12 games to start 7-0 in conference for the first time in eleventy billion years. Off the court, the month started with the enrollment of five-star transfer Quade Green from Kentucky to firm up the point guard spot next season. Top-10 national recruit Isaiah Stewart also committed later in the month. Stewart validated Mike Hopkins’s decision to push his recruiting chips toward some of the biggest and best prospects in the country. Green and Stewart put the Huskies in a great position to continue their upward climb in the college hoops world.
In spite of all those positive vibes, the Huskies remain just outside the AP Top 25. How is it possible for a 7-0 team in a power conference to remain in the “Also Receive Votes” footnote? There isn’t a simple answer, but there are several variables that have contributed to it. Let’s discuss them.
1. The Pac-12 Has Been Bad This Year
One reason pollsters have not been especially fond of the Huskies’ hot start in the Pac-12 is that beating Pac-12 teams might not mean all that much. Several high-profile non-conference losses marred the conference’s reputation. UCLA lost at home to Belmont and Liberty. USC lost to Santa Clara. Oregon lost to Texas Southern. Arizona doesn’t have a horrific loss, but they have also lost seven games already. Arizona State knocked off Kansas, which looked like a signature win for the conference until they lost at home to Princeton their next time out. Voters can easily look at UW’s wins over these types of teams and say that it can’t mean that much if the Ivy League can do the same thing.
2. The Pac-12’s Struggles Go Beyond This Season
If outside observers thought highly of the conference prior to these embarrassing losses, maybe the season to date wouldn’t mean as much. Unfortunately, the poor reputation goes beyond this season. Last year, the Pac-12 put only three teams in the NCAA tournament and not one of them won a game. UCLA and ASU were eliminated from play-in games by St. Bonaventure and Syracuse, respectively. Arizona got into the final 64, but they were upset by Buffalo. Fair or not, the narrative existed going into this season that the Pac-12 was weak for a power conference and the performance in the non-conference season validated that narrative.
3. UW Is Not a Blue Blood or High Profile Basketball Program
I don’t make this statement as a complaint; it’s a reality. UW does not have the type of past success on the hardwood that UCLA or Arizona have. For a school with that type of reputation, a 7-0 start might have caught the attention of more pollsters. The same could be said for USC due to their market and brand name. Similarly, the Huskies play many of their games late at night and/or on a TV network that many don’t see. In college football, it’s reasonable to expect voters to keep their fingers on the pulse of most of the top teams. In college basketball, there are so many more teams and so many more games that a large number of voters would be lucky to catch an unranked Huskies team once a month.
4. The Huskies Do Not Have Flashy Accomplishments to Catch Voters’ Attention
To start, UW has not beaten a ranked team all season. They came very close to beating Gonzaga, which would have made a significant difference in their national perception. By the efficiency-based ratings on KenPom.com, Gonzaga is the #4 team in the country. The other teams that beat UW in non-conference, Virginia Tech, Auburn, and Minnesota, are ranked 9, 16, and 56, respectively. The Huskies were beaten soundly by Auburn and Virginia Tech, and lost games that could have gone either way against Gonzaga and Minnesota. Wins in any of those games might have tipped the balance to get more support behind UW.
Likewise, the Huskies do not yet have the big-time, blue chip recruits that grab headlines and media attention. Green and Stewart will change that story next year, but the current roster is made up largely of veterans who have spent multiple years honing their craft and gradually improving. Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, and David Crisp have been instrumental in the hot Pac-12 start, and none of the three are household names.
5. The Huskies Have Quantifiably Improved Through the Season
To some extent, this assertion refutes the idea that Pac-12 wins don’t mean as much because the conference is not strong. UW’s best win of the season was almost certainly the road win against KenPom’s #52 team Oregon, followed by the road wins over #73 Oregon State and #96 Colorado.
The individual performances support the team success. Jaylen Nowell has been the team’s #1 offensive option and best all-around player. He ranks in the top-20 in the Pac-12 in virtually every meaningful statistic, including defensive rebounding rate (10th- outstanding for a guard), and assist rate (14th- which has freed David Crisp to play more effectively off the ball). Nowell and Crisp also rank 1 and 2 in the conference in three-point accuracy at 54.5% and 52.5%. Crisp’s marksmanship is especially shocking based on his career-long tendency to lay bricks. While Dickerson has surprisingly struggled to make free throws (57% in conference), he has put opponents’ big men in constant foul trouble by ranking second in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 8.1. Thybulle has continued his magnificent defense and Dominic Green has carved out a niche as a floor-spacing sub. Moreover, Naz Carter has broken out in a big way. He has become a key role player by making 41% of his threes and an eye-popping 77% of his two-point shots.
Perhaps the most important part of the in-conference turnaround has been the team’s stability and continuity. The Huskies have used the same starting five of Nowell, Crisp, Thybulle, Dickerson, and Hameir Wright in every conference game. Wright and Sam Timmins have provided interior defense, but small-ball lineups with Dickerson at the five have spaced the floor and lit up the scoreboard. The Huskies have developed better depth, but the fact that neither injuries nor off-court issues have forced players into bigger roles has made the month much smoother.
So why are the 7-0 Huskies unranked? To summarize, they had a pedestrian start to the season before they surged against conference opponents who played even worse in the non-conference season. In the end, it could turn out that none of that matters. The Huskies have played their way off the NCAA tournament bubble, though they could always play their way back on. If they make the tournament, mid-season top-25 rankings hardly matter. They will have a chance to prove themselves against other conferences and improve their reputation. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a hot start and an upward trajectory for the program.