Washington coach Lorenzo Romar couldn’t guide his young Huskies to the NCAA tournament. Now that two star freshmen announced they’re leaving for the NBA, Romar’s situation is even more urgent.
Two simple tweets, one minute apart, and suddenly the world of Washington’s men’s basketball was rocked to its core Wednesday afternoon.
Suddenly, all the excited forecasts of the Huskies soaring back into national contention next season looked like wishful thinking. All the fervent anticipation of the arrival of super recruit Markelle Fultz was instantly muted.
And just like that, with the push of a button by Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, the heat on Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, already white-hot after yet another season without an NCAA tournament berth, reached critical mass.
The decision by their two freshman stars to jump to the NBA tears apart the Huskies’ dream scenario. With the dynamic and maturing Murray and Chriss back as sophomores, Fultz bursting on the scene, a vitally needed big man in Sam Timmins coming off his redshirt year, and a coterie of role players with a year under their belts, the possibilities were endless. A deep run into the NCAA tournament seemed not just possible, but a realistic goal.
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Had Chriss and Murray announced that they were staying, the groundswell of Husky euphoria would have been of tidal-wave proportions.
Now? Well, after Chriss and Murray tweeted out their intention to go the one-and-done route, the Huskies plunge from top-15 national territory to fighting to emerge from the pack in the Pac-12. And Romar, conceivably down to one last chance to save his job, desperately needs a breakthrough that now has a vastly higher degree of difficulty.
That’s not to say that Romar, or the Huskies, are irretrievably doomed. But their road to redemption just became exponentially more difficult.
Remember how hard it was this season for all those freshmen to assimilate into college ball, the wildly fluctuating performances that were equal parts maddening and exhilarating? They’ll have to go through that again with Fultz — but without the steadying influence of graduating senior Andrew Andrews.
This team certainly won’t be bereft of talent. Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson and David Crisp all showed considerable potential in their freshman year, as did junior Malik Dime –— and it’s often said that the biggest jump a college player makes is from his first year to his second.
Dominic Green and Donaven Dorsey have some intriguing attributes; Auburn transfer Matthew Atewe, a 6-foot-8 forward, is a total wild card. Timmins, a 6-10, 275-pound forward from New Zealand, could be the inside muscle the Huskies so desperately lacked this season.
And Fultz, a top-10 recruit in virtually every national ranking, is the most heralded player Romar has ever brought in. He’s also likely to be another one-year rental, so the urgency to win immediately is increased.
There’s also the chance the Huskies can swoop in with a late-committing prep recruit or land one of the graduate transfers that are all the rage.
But Murray and Chriss are special, transcendent talents that could have soared into superstardom as sophomores and hoisted the Huskies along with them. With what is expected to be a loaded 2017 NBA draft class, it’s hard to fault them for maximizing their pro chances by declaring now.
In a way, it’s a back-handed compliment to Romar that Murray and Chriss developed this season to become slam-dunk first-round projections, emboldening them to jump to the pros. Yes, they were highly regarded prospects out of high school, helping lift the Huskies to a No. 8 national recruiting ranking last year. Still, few forecasters projected that they would be first-round material after their freshman year, so you can conclude they were coached up.
But in another way, it’s an indictment of Romar’s overall performance that with two first-rounders and the Pac-12’s leading scorer in Andrews, the Huskies still couldn’t emerge from the crowd, and instead muddled their way into — and quickly out of — the NIT.
Yeah, they were young, but that excuse doesn’t carry much weight in the wake of four previous seasons out of the NCAA tournament. And that’s twice in recent years the Huskies will have two first-round picks from a team that didn’t dance (Terrence Ross went eighth overall and Tony Wroten Jr. 25th in 2012 from a UW squad that also settled for the NIT).
Romar, universally regarded as one of the most decent men in college basketball, has built up a vast reservoir of goodwill. The memory is getting dimmer, but he did take the Huskies to six tournaments (and three Sweet 16s) in his first nine years.
But that doesn’t give him a lifetime pass. I still believe Romar deserves a chance to see what he can do with an elite player like Fultz integrated into some talented returning players — an opinion that is not shared by a growing number of frustrated Husky fans.
Even most Romar supporters would concede that this will be an ultimatum season coming up: Dance, or else.
And in one fell swoop — really, two fell tweets — that task became much harder Wednesday afternoon.