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Updated Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 07:06 AM

Who are the Huskies? The next week will provide an answer

By Jerry Brewer
Times staff columnist

It figures the Washington men's basketball team would arrive at a 4-3 Pac-12 Conference record in the most perplexing manner possible. These Huskies are weird that way. As I said earlier this season, they're just good enough to frustrate you.

They're capable of opening conference play with four straight victories — three on the road — while holding all of those opponents below 40 percent shooting. And they're capable of following up with three straight losses to waste most of the early momentum. At 4-3, the Huskies are about where you thought they would be, maybe a little better. But they're befuddling because of the inconsistent route they chose to get there.

So, what do you make of the Huskies?

Was it an aberration when they were at their gritty best, winning on will as much as skill? Or is that this team's identity, hidden beneath the growing pains that have produced a 12-8 overall record? Or are the Huskies just a puzzle that's not meant to be solved?

I fear the latter, that this is a team built to be random, with just enough talent to be competitive but not enough to overcome the fits of youth that all college teams endure. Whichever way you're leaning, the truth should become clearer over the next week as the Huskies conclude a four-game gauntlet against the best teams in the conference.

They started that stretch Saturday and turned in a decent performance in an 81-76 loss at No. 10 Oregon. Now, they'll host No. 8 Arizona at 6 p.m. Thursday on ESPN. On Saturday, Arizona State, which has a 16-4 record and is the league's biggest surprise, visits Alaska Airlines Arena. And next Thursday, the Huskies travel to face UCLA.

This is the defining stretch of their season. If the Huskies can win two of these three games, then you can start to think of them as more than a mystery.

As crazy as it sounds, you might even be able to ponder their NCAA tournament hopes if they can pick up a couple of quality victories in the next seven days. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has begun his running dissection of the Big Dance, and he currently has the Huskies on the bubble. He has Washington listed among the first eight teams to miss the NCAA tourney cut.

Ken Pomeroy, my hoops maven of choice, has a more sobering view. He has the Huskies at No. 85 in his ratings. The Huskies' RPI is No. 71, according to CBSSports.com's tracking. Typically, you want to have a Pomeroy rating and RPI of at least 50 before you start expecting a ticket to the Dance. Instead of crunching numbers, the Huskies need to focus more on becoming a functional basketball team in all facets of the game. But if they can achieve that, there are plenty of scenarios in which they could make the NCAA tournament.

Despite nonconference home losses to Albany and Nevada, despite giving Utah and Oregon State their first conference wins, Washington hasn't lost as much ground as perceived. Some of their bad losses can be neutralized, or perhaps nullified, with a handful of quality victories. The Huskies will have plenty of chances. Beyond the three games over the next week, Oregon and UCLA still must come to Seattle, and the Huskies will visit the Arizona schools in February.

The Huskies could prove that they're as good as they were in starting 4-0 in the Pac-12. Or they could be exposed even more as a team that doesn't have the post scoring, the athletes or the mentality of the typical Lorenzo Romar team.

It's an interesting few weeks for Romar, too. He's in his 11th season as the Washington coach, and some wonder if the program has reached the point of diminishing returns. I don't think it has.

Last season was a missed opportunity. This season is more indicative of recruiting adjustments that the coaching staff needs to make, and in some ways, already has made. Next year's class, led by hard-nosed guard Nigel Williams-Goss, is a good one, and it could become a great one if top-10 recruit Aaron Gordon signs in the spring. And if C.J. Wilcox returns for a fifth season, the Huskies would project to be an NCAA tournament team with a nice blend of young star power and experience.

In basketball, you're always a couple of impact players from getting right. The Huskies haven't fallen off as a program. They've just fallen down. They're certain to rise again. The only question is: How soon?

This season's enigmatic team gets the first crack at an answer.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

Thursday

Arizona @ UW, 6 p.m., ESPN


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