This is part two of the series examining Lorenzo Romar’s coaching tenure at Washington. In Part I, we examined the early part of Romar’s tenure and wondered whether his early success was more of an artifact of the amazing players Romar inherited from Bob Bender or his own coaching style and philosophy.
After Part I, people fairly pointed out that Romar’s 9 years and Bender’s 9 years are not even comparable when looking at overall record, conference record, quality of players in totality, and local or national perception. I completely agree with those comments. But, the point I was making is whether Romar’s success is his entirely and more importantly, as will be asked in Part III of this series, is whether he is the coach to lead the Huskies to that “next level” of Final Fours…or if that is even a reasonable possibility at the University of Washington.
After two disappointing seasons in 2007 and 2008, the Washington Huskies experienced something of renaissance in 2009 under the leadership of seniors Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon, junior Quincy Pondexter, sophomores Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday, and hard-charging freshman Isaiah Thomas (6 eventual professionals and 3 in the NBA).
The Huskies went on to win their first out-right Pac-10 conference title in 54 years by going 14-4 in the Pac-10 and 26-9 overall. They recieved a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament and suffered a final-second heart-breaking loss to Purdue in the 2nd round of the Big Dance. Despite the disappointment of not making the Sweet 16, there were a lot of good feelings out at Montlake following that season and lots of optimism that the program was back to the way it was from 2004-2006. The Huskies were back and a Final Four was right around the corner… or was it?
Jon Brockman graduated as the all-time leading rebounder and 2nd all-time in scoring in Husky history. But, in 2010, it would be Quincy Pondexter’s turn to rise up and lead the team as a senior. The team brought almost everyone else back and had some great recruits coming in such as 5-star guard Abdul Gaddy. The skies’ the limit or so it seemed…
But, with expectations raised yet again, the Huskies struggled in the followup campaign of 2010. While earning relatively easy wins in the non-conference season, they continued to struggle in games on the road or neutral arenas, like losses against Texas Tech and Georgetown. But, the real stuggles began in the conference season. Going into the game at home with Oregon on January 2nd, the 10-2 Huskies were blown out by the lowly Ducks. Then, consecutive losses at the Arizona schools left the Huskies just 1-3 in the conference. Losses on their next road trip Los Angeles dropped the Huskies to just 12-7 and 3-5 in the conference and the hopes for a return to the NCAA tournament seemed in real jeopardy.
But, the Huskies rallied around their new leader, sophomore Isaiah Thomas, who would just not quit and the Huskies went on to go win 9 of their next 13 games to put them into the Pac-10 Championship game against conference champions California. However, despite now having a 23-9 record, the conference was considered so bad by the East Coast analysts (the conference did only get two bids), that even that great of a turnaround was not considered good enough to get an At-large bid to the tournament. They were going to have to get the automatic bid by winning the title…
In one of the most exciting Husky games in years, Washington was able to outlast Cal when Elston Turner created a game-winning turnover on Jerome Randle with just seconds remaining. Despite winning 12 of their last 14, including the conference tournament, the Huskies were given just an 11-seed, which indicates they probably wouldn’t have gotten an At-large berth without that win.
The good feelings of winning the tournament and then advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over #6 seed Marquette and #3 seed New Mexico (and having a real shot of beating West Virginia) made a lot of fans forget just how much of a struggle it was to get there. Fans were giddy with excitement with the return of seniors Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, junior Isaiah Thomas, sophomore Abdul Gaddy, and incoming freshmen Terrance Ross and CJ Wilcox (redshirt). A Final Four seemed like a real possibility or at least another run at the conference title.
When the Huskies thought they were getting Terrance Jones, everything seemed even sweeter. But, there were signs that maybe things wouldn’t quite turn out the way we hoped. Elston Turner left the team. Clarence Trent left the team. Jones got a phone call from John Calipari and that drama ensued. And after a promising freshman season, big man Tyreese Breshers had to retire.
Nonetheless, the media picked the Huskies to win the Pac-10 title in the pre-season and why not? They had the best talent in the conference, a veteran core of leadership, and the way they finished the season left nothing but optimism.
But, things really didn’t turn out the way we hoped for. Huge games in Maui, with national exposure to lure in big-time recruits, resulted in losses to Kentucky and Michigan State. Another chance to have a signature win on the road on national TV resulted in a heart-breaking loss to Texas A&M. The Huskies just couldn’t get a win away from Seattle.
But, the good feelings returned again when the Huskies started conference play 7-1 and were 15-4 at that point in the season, sporting a #20 ranking in the AP Poll. They were definitely on their way to proving the media right about picking them to win the conference. A top 4 seed in the tournament seemed a distinct possibility.
But, that one loss was a warning sign few fans noticed at the time. By losing to lowly Stanford on the road 58-56, the Cardinal exposed the way to beat the Huskies. Pack it in the zone because the Huskies have no half-court offense. When the 3-point shot isn’t falling, the Huskies did not seem to have any answers of how to score. They would just go into street-ball mode and couldn’t find the net.
So, when the Huskies went on the road for three in a row, starting with the hated WSU Cougars, real weaknesses began to be exposed. The team’s chemistry seemed to go awry and they often could not buy a basket. After two losses in Oregon, real doubts began to grow about what this team was about and it seemed like dejavu all over again from the previous year.
But, the Huskies rallied again. They beat Cal and Stanford at home, took care of business on the road against Arizona State, and had conference champion Arizona beaten on the road except for an incredible goal-tending no call by Derrick Williams on Darnell Gant at the buzzer. Nonetheless, the Huskies semmed back, or perhaps they weren’t…
Because soon thereafter the Huskies suffered home defeats to Washington State again and to USC in the last conference game and suddenly they were most squarely on the bubble at just 20-10 and 11-7 in the conference. After starting the season 15-4 and 7-1 in conference, they had finished just 5-6. This team had a level of inconsistency that was mind-boggling. Why was a team with so much talent not cruising into the tournament with a high seed? Why the drama?
A huge rematch victory over Washington State, in which Klay Thompson went off for 42 points may have been enough for an At-large berth, but the win over Oregon in the 2nd round probably sealed the deal. But, that was not enough to feel safe. In the tournament final Isaiah Thomas put his team on his back in leading the Huskies to that unbelievable overtime victory at the buzzer over Arizona for their 2nd straight Pac-10 tournament title. Suddenly, all of that tension was released…They had done it again!
A 1st round win over Georgia and a very tight loss to North Carolina in the 2nd round left many Husky fans feeling happy again, but not quite satisfied. The feeling this time was not of giddiness as it was the year before, but rather the feeling was more like “what if?”
What if the Huskies had landed Terrance Jones?
What if Elston Turner had not transferred?
What if the Huskies had taken care of business at Oregon State, at Oregon, against USC, at Texas A&M. What would have a higher seed have done for their chances for the Sweet 16 or beyond?
The Huskies have been to 3-straight NCAA tournaments. That’s nothing to sneeze at. For three straight years they have won a conference title (either regular season or tournament). But, there remains this lingering feeling that there was so much more left on the table. A Sweet 16 in Jon Brockman’s senior year. An Elite 8 in 2010. A conference title and Sweet 16 in 2011. Big time recruits Lorenzo Romar has almost had, but can’t quite land.
Much has been written about Washington’s road woes, their inability to operate out of the half-court, their lack of team chemistry and discipline at times, the upset losses. What makes it all the more frustrating is how exilerating this team can be when playing on all cylinders. What they can accomplish when they step it up, such as against Arizona, Marquette, New Mexico, etc.
But, when you look at Romar’s entire tenure, you can’t help but wonder…Are the Huskies this good or has their pattern of success just covered some systemic problems that may lead to the gradual decline of the program.
What if the Huskies had not gone on a tear in 2010 and rallied to win the Pac-10 title? Which Husky team was the real one in 2010? The one that was 12-7 and 3-5 in conference or the team that rattled off 14 wins in the next 16?
Which Husky team was the real one in 2011? The one that was 15-4 and 7-1 in conference or the one that was just 5-6 after?
Which Husky team is the real one in 2012? Have we seen it? They are 9-6, yet 3-1 in conference. They lost to South Dakota State at home! But, they took Marquette to the wire in New York. They have been blown out against Saint Louis and Colorado, barely beat Utah, yet handled Oregon and Oregon State with ease.
Will this team go on another late run and win the conference tournament? If that happens, will the Husky faithful forget the early season woes or wonder what is happening with this coaching staff and the players they recruit that make these seasons such soap operas?
Only time will tell if this is just a natural cycle toward Romar’s third renaissance as Husky coach or if the stuggles of the past two seasons, really of the 5 of the past 6, are just a sign that he is headed the way of Bob Bender…
In Part III of this series, we’ll examine the travails of the recruiting scene and ask, for all the credit Lorenzo Romar deserves for ressurecting the Huskies basketball program, is he the coach who can lead them to the next level? And if not, could anyone? Should we as fans be satisfied with making the NCAA tournament 3 of every 5 years? Is a Sweet 16 every other year enough? Or, should we demand the Final Four and take our chances with someone else?