With a 9-12 record (2-7 in Pac-12 play), UW is facing its sixth consecutive year of missing the NCAA tournament. Even with next season’s highly regarded recruiting class coming in, it’s difficult to make a case for retaining Romar next season.
Lorenzo Romar gave a cogent defense of his program, and a potential blueprint for a brighter future, Tuesday during his media availability.
It’s a case he’s being forced to make with increasing frequency — and being received with increasing skepticism — as another lackluster Husky basketball season limps toward the finish line.
I really want to buy in, because I have tremendous admiration for Romar and respect for what he has done with the program. But those glory days, upon which Romar supporters hang their case (or part of it, anyway), are getting further removed from current reality.
There’s hardly any need to review the gloomy particulars. With a 9-12 record (2-7 in Pac-12 play) entering Wednesday’s home game against USC, Washington is facing its sixth consecutive year of missing the NCAA tournament. It would take a miraculous four-game run in the Pac-12 tournament to change that, and if you’re still clinging to that hope, well, I have some swampland in Mukilteo. It’s far more likely the Huskies will have their first losing season since 2007-08.
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That was in the midst of six NCAA bids in an eight-year span and three conference championships. But it’s getting harder to make a case for retaining Romar next season that doesn’t revolve around sentimentality, and the potential payoff of next season’s bonanza recruiting class, which includes the top high-school player, Michael Porter Jr.
The stark truth is that the first part is getting less persuasive as the disappointing seasons flash past. And as far as the incoming 2017 class that was ranked No. 2 in the nation on signing day, that’s getting to be a flimsier peg to hang one’s hopes.
It’s hard to come to any other conclusion after watching last season’s Husky team, with two first-round draft choices and the Pac-12’s leading scorer, fall short of the tournament; and then this one, with a possible No. 1 overall draft pick in Markelle Fultz, underachieve all season. The Huskies showed admirable grit in their most recent game, a 77-66 defeat at No. 7 Arizona, but it’s hard to see many more victories to be had down the stretch.
Romar pointed out how much the early departures of freshmen Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss threw off the rebuild that began after eight players left the program following the 2014-15 season. The incoming seven-man class led by Murray and Chriss, which was ranked in the top 10 by many analysts, was supposed to change things — but then those two declared for the draft, and that scenario fizzled.
Romar remembered the optimism that prevailed when the Huskies were sitting 7-3 in league play last season.
“We were thinking, ‘Wow, Dejounte and Marquese are really good, and the following year Markelle and the other guys will join them, and it would have been the second year (removed) from eight players leaving, and us being kind of dysfunctional … we’re back on track,’ ” he said. “Well, Dejounte and Marquese leave, so we stall a little bit.
“Now we have another group coming in that, in my opinion, one through five, is better than the seven that were here before. Because of those reasons, I just feel like the ship is being righted, and that we’re going to be all right.”
The difference, Romar says, is that unlike last season, when Andrew Andrews was the only senior, the Huskies next year will have several juniors and some sophomores, all now with considerable experience, to provide leadership. But the worrisome aspect to that is that it’s hard to peg much progress from those players this season, even surrounded by a player as impactful as Fultz.
Romar says to be patient — a leap forward is coming.
“They’re getting it now,” he said. “So now, with this experience, they’ll be upperclassmen. I’ve just seen too many guys go from sophomores to juniors and make that jump. That’s why I’m optimistic — and still optimistic about this year.”
I’ll tell you why my optimism is waning: Porter, like Fultz, is almost certain to be one-and-done, and this coaching staff has not shown in recent years that it can produce the growth that will result in sustainable, and perennial, success rather than the Band-Aid of a potential surge led by a lottery pick. It couldn’t do it this season or last. Romar’s teams once were known for tenacious defense, but this team has been a defensive sieve.
It certainly would not be outrageous for athletic director Jen Cohen to decide it is too risky to possibly lose this recruiting class by firing Romar. There are financial considerations as well for a program that has been running a deficit and would have to pay Romar a $3.2 million buyout if he’s dismissed before next season. But that’s a lot of faith to put in a turnaround that might not come.
Romar said his goal for the remainder of the season — and the Huskies are guaranteed 10 more games, with anything beyond that having to be earned on the court — is to keep improving and gaining confidence.
“We need to be able to go out there and be able to believe that we’re getting better, and really believe that we can compete with anyone out there on that basketball floor,” he said.
That’s an outcome, sadly, that keeps getting harder to envision.