On December 18th at Hec Ed, the Washington Huskies were humiliated by the South Dakota State Jackrabbits of the Horizon League 93-73. They were torched with 34 points by an unknown guard named Nate Wolters. The Huskies had dropped to just 5-5 in non-conference play and had an RPI in the 100’s. The NCAA tournament was looking like an unlikely possibility.
Then, on January 5th, the Huskies took a trip to Boulder, CO where they were demolished 87-69. Two days later in Salt Lake City, the Huskies took on one of the worst teams in the history of the Pac-12, Utah (5-21), and barely hung on to beat them 57-53. Following that game, the Huskies were just 9-6 with an RPI of 93.
At that stage, I began a series here at Husky Haul criticizing the coaching and recruiting of Lorenzo Romar. I took a lot of grief from Husky fans about the tone and insinuations of my article. Clearly I was frustrated…as any self-respecting Husky fan should have been by the lack of heart and hustle this team was showing at the time. And perhaps that frustration led me to take a harsher than reasonable tone about the job Lorenzo Romar was doing. But, the fact was the Huskies were at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. All that talent, with 3-4 future NBA players, seemed to be going to waste.
Certainly, they still are not out of the woods quite yet. They need to win three or four more games to feel secure about their chances on Selection Sunday. But, things most definitely have turned around at Montlake. It hasn’t been a dramatic turn around by any means. It wasn’t like the Huskies just woke up one day, realized they had dug themselves a hole, and used their incredible talent to start blowing out the competition. Instead, it has been a slow grind full of lackluster performances, final second finishes, and glimpses of brilliance and frustration. They have most definitely looked like a team that needs improvement, with often horrible free throw shooting, too many turnovers, and sometimes porous defense. But, through it all, the Huskies have just kept on winning.
Since that fateful night in Boulder, the Huskies have gone 11-2. Since that night cold December night against South Dakota State the Huskies have gone 14-3. The Huskies are also 12-3 in conference play, which puts them on pace for their best conference record in history. Not even the #1 seeded Huskies of 2005 finished 15-3! Another funny thing has happened to make the bitterness of those early season losses a little easier to shallow…the teams that beat them ended up being pretty good! Let’s take a look at the record of the eight teams who have beaten the Huskies:
Saint Louis 22-5 RPI 22
Nevada 22-5 RPI 56
#11 Marquette 22-5 RPI 9
#5 Duke 22-4 RPI 4
South Dakota State 20-7 RPI 60
Colorado 18-8 RPI 73
California 21-6 RPI 29
Oregon 18-8 RPI 61
While I think the NCAA tournament selection committee may not look too kindly on close games to Seattle U, Utah, Arizona State, and Oregon State, they also have to look at those loses and realize the Huskies lost to pretty good teams. Had the Huskies won just one or two of those games, their RPI would be much better and they would have that “marquee win” everyone talks about so much.
So, with that in mind, what kind of job has Lorenzo Romar done coaching this season? I think the jury is still out… There clearly are mitigating factors here that may or may not have contributed to the early season woes and lack of cohesion of this team. Having senior Scott Suggs miss the entire year with injury is one…Tony Wroten’s early injury may have inhibited his ability to learn the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates, as well as, the defensive schemes. While he was individually spectacular when he came back, perhaps the team chemistry and cohesion suffered. Abdul Gaddy had his own injury to recover from and perhaps it took him a while to feel comfortable with himself before he could take on the key leadership role the team needed early on. Perhaps other players just didn’t have the personality type to take on that leadership void left by Brockman, Pondexter, and Isaiah Thomas. CJ Wilcox’s hip injury has also limited the depth of the bench and forced players to play more minutes than they would have otherwise.
This is a team with 8 freshmen afterall. Perhaps it was just part of the learning process for these players to understand Romar’s defense and to develop their offensive game. Clearly Romar has had to make adjustments to deal with his unique personnel situation. You’ve seen the zone a lot more this season and with so many close games, he’s had to manage the free throw shooting situation carefully to make sure Ross and Wilcox take them late, as opposed to Aziz, Kemp, or Wroten.
This is a team that has many weaknesses still. They still lack focus for significant stretches of games. That was on display when they let Arizona State come back from 22 down to within 11 with 12 minutes left and they only won the game by 8. They have a tendency to start slow and get themselves into an early hole against good teams and keep games close against weak opponents. Before this weekend’s games against Arizona State and Arizona, the Huskies were averaging just 27.8 points in the first half of games in their previous 10 games. The Huskies still have a tendency to play to the level of their competition, which is why games against Arizona State (in Tempe), Oregon State (in Corvallis), Utah, Washington State, UCLA, and Seattle U were all close, or at least closer than they should have been. But, with the notable exception of the Oregon game a week-and-a-half ago, the Huskies also seem to be able to rise to the level of their competition, whether it is Marquette, Stanford, or against Arizona twice.
For the 3rd straight year the Huskies found themselves in a hole and then have gone on a late season roll to pull themselves back out of it. They are not on the surface quite yet this season, but they certainly can see the daylight above now. So, perhaps this is infact Lorenzo Romar’s best coaching job ever. Maybe taking such a young group of raw athletes with no chemistry and turning them into a “team” is his major accomplishment. Maybe keeping their heads high following that embarrassing loss to the Jackrabbits in December is his most significant achievement. Maybe just believing in them when many, including myself, had lost hope was the main thing.
Or, perhaps this is actually a story of personal and professional growth by Lorenzo Romar himself. Maybe he has been learning on the job. Even people who have been doing something for a long time face unique situations that you are not immediately good at dealing with, but given time you start to put it together. I know as a teacher, this is the case. Every year there is something new, something unexpected you must face with your students and must come up with new strategies to deal with. You never truly “master it”, you just keep learning and improving.
When I coached high school basketball, I always found the end of the season to be somewhat bittersweet. After all the turmoil and toiling to take a group of raw student-athletes and to turn them into a team, I always found them playing their best basketball at the end of the season when it mattered most. Thus, when the season inevitably had to end, it was exciting to see how far they had come, yet disappointing to see it end when they were capable of so much and then you realized you would have to start over from scratch in the fall. Perhaps this is the experience Lorenzo Romar is having now.
I don’t know if this is Romar best or worst coaching job he has done here at Washington. But, maybe at the end of the season we can find out from Romar himself. In the meantime, I don’t think any of us truly know what this team is capable of if it were to play at its highest level. But, I hope we find out in the NCAA tournament!