1. Washington Huskies (14-4, 5-0 Pac-12) LW: 2
Like the snow level of the peaks on Mount Rainier, Washington trickled through its non-conference campaign with uncertainty. Ranked 25th in the preseason AP Poll, the Huskies fell without exceeding expectations, dropping resume boosters to Auburn, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech.
But since the start of Pac-12 action, coach Mike Hopkins has his team on an upward slope. At 5-0, the Huskies hold the league’s best record, extending the mark with a sweep of the Bay Area schools last week.
In the victories, UW continued to press with length and athleticism. Its 2-3 zone held Stanford and Cal to a combined 4-of-30 from beyond the arc, creating plenty opportunities for its guards in the open floor.
Sophomore Jaylen Nowell continues to be one of the league’s most efficient players, averaging 16.5 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the two victories. Senior Dominic Green also impressed off the bench, totaling 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting.
At this point, the Huskies have created separation between the rest of the league. They lead the conference in field goal defense (40.1 percent), 3-point field goal defense (26.5) and points allowed (61.2) in league action. They’ve also reentered Joe Lunardi’s NCAA Tournament field as a No. 9 seed in the East region.
The strong start, combined with inconsistencies throughout the league, makes the Huskies a safe bet to continue momentum. But they will soon be tested.
In each of the next three weeks, Washington will play teams ranked 2-8 in the conference. Two of the series are on the road, including matchups against second-ranked Arizona and third-ranked Arizona State.
The Huskies weren’t able to persevere in November and December. But if they can break through these opportunities, the Pac-12 could find the quality team it has been lacking.
Washington will begin that challenge this week, facing Oregon and Oregon State on the road.