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The Big Picture: Heart-pounding win boosts Washington’s tournament resume

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Junior David Crisp finished with 12 points, including multiple key drives to the basket late in the second half.

One year ago today, the Washington men’s basketball team fell to 2-8 in the Pac-12 and continued its disappearance into the rearview of college basketball.

Thursday night, a different story emerged. On their home floor, the Huskies (16-6, 6-3 Pac-12) edged out No. 25 Arizona State, 68-64, to supplement their tournament resume with another quality win.

Washington’s turnaround has grown into one of the biggest stories of the college basketball season. In head coach Mike Hopkins’ first season, he has the Huskies positioned to earn their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

The most obvious indicator of Washington’s newfound success is this year’s crowd presence at Alaska Airlines Arena. For the second straight game, the UW faithful impacted the play on the court with noise all game long.

“You feel it,” Hopkins said. “When you’re sitting down there and I start getting goosebumps when I’m supposed to be coaching, that’s when you know it’s really, really good. That Dawg Pack, when everyone starts standing up at the end when we needed to get those stops, that’s what it’s all about."

Washington stabilized itself in third place in the conference standings, a half game above UCLA and one and a half back from USC. Finishing in the top four of the regular season standings is critical, granting a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in March.

In terms of the NCAA Tournament, most experts slated the Huskies on the bubble entering Thursday’s matchup. With a win against the Sun Devils (16-6, 4-6 Pac-12) in its pocket, the UW now enters the tournament with most bracket predictions across the country.

While Washington still has to finish out the season strong, wins over No. 7 Kansas, No. 25 ASU, USC, and Belmont are strong enough to push the Huskies over the edge. After the latest win, Hopkins talked about the simplicity of big-game preparations.

“At Kansas we just executed the game plan,” Hopkins said. “We took out one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country at the time. It was one of those things like, ‘oh, what the coaches are telling us really works.’ You believe in it.”

The 2-3 zone defense led the Huskies to victory once again Thursday night. Washington shot just 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three, but neutralized a lethal ASU backcourt to control the flow of the game.

On the offense end, loose-ball rebounds and attacking the rim led the UW to clutch offensive production. Junior forward Noah Dickerson remains a consistent threat in the paint, posting 21 points and 16 rebounds in just 29 minutes against ASU.

“We think Noah’s one of the best big men not only in the league, but in the country,” Hopkins said. “When he’s on, he’s on and it’s hard to guard. He got all the big guys in foul trouble.”

His presence may allow the Huskies to compete with Arizona —  one of the strongest offensive paint teams in the country — Saturday night. As the season progresses, he’s improved at staying out of foul trouble, allowing his impact on the floor to last.

“I’m a smart guy,” Dickerson said. “I pick and choose my battles. I’m not the tallest. I can’t jump the highest, I can jump a little bit though, but I know our offense. I know the defense.”

The other x-factor for Washington was junior guard David Crisp. The veteran leader for the UW has steadily outgrown his poor shot selection from season’s past, shooting an efficient 46 percent against ASU.

His offensive poise down the stretch powered the surge that gave the Huskies a win, but was also quick to credit a huge part of the UW’s energy Thursday night to the crowd, and in particular, the Dawg Pack.

“They’re part of the team,” Crisp said. “That’s our teammates. Every single one of them. They go from freshman year to now … For them to be here in full force like this, it means the world.”

Saturday night, we find out just how real this Washington team is. Arizona will enter Alaska Airlines Arena as one of the hottest teams in the country, ranked No. 9 after winning 16 of its past 17 games. The Wildcats (19-4, 9-1 Pac-12) are 6-1 in true road games this season.

“We’re going up against, on Saturday, a team that could be the best team in the country,” Hopkins said. “They’ve got size, they’ve got shooting, they’ve got guard play. They’ve got the complete package.”

Under 200 tickets remain unsold for Washington’s Saturday night showdown. With Pac-12 bragging rights on the line, the Huskies will have an opportunity to announce themselves as a serious program out West.

Reach reporter Cody Tyo at Twitter: @codytyo

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