Washington clinched the outright Pac-12 regular season championship on Thursday night.
The Huskies also suffered a loss to the worst team in the conference, falling to Cal 76-73.
UW has losses from Arizona State and Oregon State to thank for its ability to still win the title, but it wasn’t celebrating anything after the game. As the Huskies look to finishing strong and win their final three games of the season, starting with Stanford on Sunday, here’s what we learned from their second conference defeat.
1. First bad loss
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One of the most important pieces of UW’s resume was its lack of a bad loss, but that all changed against Cal.
Heading into the game, the Huskies didn’t have a signature win. But unlike every other team in the Pac-12, UW also avoided falling to drastically inferior competition.
Before the loss to Cal, UW had a NET ranking of 29. On Friday morning, it dropped to 35. The Huskies’ previous defeats were to Auburn (23), Gonzaga (1), Virginia Tech (11), Minnesota (55) and Arizona State (68). The Golden Bears had a NET ranking of 275 before they beat the Huskies. On Friday, Cal moved up to 253. They are still the lowest ranked major conference team.
The Huskies’ NCAA Tournament stock had been trending up. They were up to a No. 7-seed in most mock brackets this week, and some experts even projected them as a No. 6 seed.
While one loss doesn’t make UW a bubble team, it will drop it back to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Due to a lack of opportunities for a high-quality win in the Pac-12, the Huskies will likely need to win the rest of their regular season games and make a solid run in the Pac-12 Tournament in order to make case for a higher seed.
2. As defense goes, so do the Huskies
Head coach Mike Hopkins said earlier this week that UW hadn’t played its best game yet. While he talked about addressing turnovers and rebounding — the latter of which was an issue late in the game against Cal — he said he was pleased with the way the Huskies were playing defense.
But the defense that was holding conference opponents to 42.1 percent shooting was nowhere to be found against the Golden Bears. Instead, Cal shot 64.3 percent in the first half and 55.6 percent for the game. It came into the game shooting a conference-worst 39.4 percent against Pac-12 opponents.
When Arizona State handed the Huskies their first conference loss, one of the keys was getting the ball into the high-post. UW has consistently denied opponents that opportunity and it’s been a big reason for its success.
But Cal followed the Sun Devils’ road map on Thursday.
“A lot of times, we’re doing a good job keeping the ball out of the high-post,” said point guard David Crisp. “We’re usually really active on the defensive end so that will put out a lot of fires we create for ourselves but that activity wasn’t there today.”
Arizona State also shot well against UW. The Sun Devils shot 61.7 percent from the field, including 65.2 percent in the second half.
At its best, the Huskies’ defense is stifling. Go back to when they held Utah to 18 points on five field goals in the second half. But when the defense isn’t there, UW is a completely different team. It can lose to anyone, as it proved against Cal, even when it’s playing well offensively.
“We didn’t play our best game but a lot of it, we’ve got to give Cal credit. I think Cal did a great job,” Hopkins said. “Our defense, they scored (45) points. We’re not going to beat anybody giving (45) points up in a (first) half.”
3. David Crisp’s big night
For much of the night, it seemed like UW was going to pull out a victory simply because Crisp wouldn’t be denied. He finished with a career-high 32 points on 13-of-21 shooting from the field.
He’s had several big games in Pac-12 player, but none were more impressive than his showing against Cal. After the game, though, he wasn’t interested in dissecting his performance
“I don’t care about no career high if we lose, especially in this fashion,” he said. “Happiest thing to me is when we win. That’s the best thing for me. For us to lose, it just feels horrible.”
Still, it’s worth noting that Crisp has been in double figures in all but one game of the Pac-12 season. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field and 43 percent from the 3-point line against conference opponents.
One of the qualities of this year’s UW team is that seemingly any player can take over on any given night. Before the loss to Cal, the Huskies had five different leading scorers in their last five games.
But what became increasingly clear against the Golden Bears is how important Crisp — both his leadership and his scoring — will be to UW’s postseason hopes.