Looking ahead: Washington Huskies

May 26, 2015

It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage. Today: The Washington Huskies.

Imagine you knew nothing about the name or status of the Washington head men’s basketball coach. You could still access information about everything else regarding the program: Last season’s statistics, next season’s recruiting class, the roster, all of it. Just one specific piece of information about the Huskies was momentarily made unavailable to you — wiped from your memory, impossible to Google.

Then imagine we asked you to describe the head coach’s situation. Judging solely from the context, what would you say? If you guessed that, at some point this spring, Washington fired its previous coach and hired a new one — well, that would be an entirely reasonable guess.

The available evidence suggests as much. The 2014-15 season began with immense promise and ended as a minor disaster. An 11-0 start, which included high-profile early wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma, turned into a 2-11 finish and a 16-15 final record. Washington’s defense, which spent November and December stifling opponents’ interior attacks at a high level, became the second-worst per-possession unit in the Pac-12. That development was driven in part by the dismissal of the Huskies’ best defender, sophomore Robert Upshaw, who was also college basketball’s best shot-blocker before various violations of team rules forced his coach’s hand. And, after that mess of a season reached its merciful end, four players transferred — the kind of exodus that typically spawns from programs in which the coach is outgoing, too.

Your guess would also be wrong.

Lorenzo Romar is not only not new, he just finished the 13th season of a mostly successful tenure at his alma mater. In the mid-aughts, Romar revived a moribund Huskies’ program that had been to just 10 NCAA tournaments in its history, and did so almost immediately. He has been to the NCAA tournament six times since. He has been the Pac-12 coach of the year. He has almost always recruited well. A smattering of current NBA players began their careers at Montlake. Romar’s tenure has been, by pretty much any measure, a successful one.

Still, recent seasons have corroded that stature. From 2004-05 to 2010-11, Washington finished the season ranked outside the adjusted efficiency top 40 just twice. Since 2011-12, their highest finish is 57th, that infamous (for the Pac-12) season when the Huskies became the first major-conference regular-season champion to not receive an at-large NCAA tournament bid. The Huskies’ win totals and per-possession metrics have declined ever since. And 2014-15 was the nadir — at least so far.

What the immediate future holds:

Whether 2015-16 will reverse this decline is the crucial question. It’s also an unanswerable one.

Besides the unfortunate turn of Upshaw’s dismissal — when you’re the best rim protector in the country, you have to be really pressing your luck to get kicked off your team — some rough luck with injuries also played a role in 2014-15’s problems. If most of Romar’s starters were returning, mixing in with a talented new class, then a reversal of fortune would feel like a fairly safe prediction.

Instead, the transfers hit. Biggest among them was Nigel Williams-Goss, a 2013 McDonald’s All-American and, as a sophomore, the Huskies leader in usage (26.6 percent), shot percentage (27.2) and assist rate (35.9, 23rd-best in the country). Williams-Goss had his flaws on the offensive end, particularly his inability to keep defenses honest from deep. But his assured point guard play is by far the biggest loss to a team with more than its fair share of personnel departures this spring.

(Among those departures was assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger, who took an opening on Fred Hoiberg’s staff at Iowa State, and eventually produced an amazing late-April exchange between Romar and Seattle Times reporter Percy Allen. When Allen asked why Otzelberger made the decision, Romar said: “I think if you look in the next few months it will become pretty obvious. And I’ll just leave it at that.” Allen replied that he had “no idea what that means.” Romar’s response: “Yeah.”)

The good news is that Romar has a lot of talent on the way. A seven-player class will join four returning players on the roster next season. Two of those freshmen are ESPN top 100 players; three are four-star prospects. All three — Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray, and Matisse Thybulle — might earn starting roles right away, if not simply due to sheer attrition.

But as Romar has said this offseason, the upside to a season like 2014-15, and the purge that followed, is the certainty that both the players who stayed behind and the ones who chose to join are fully bought in. The 2015-16 season will almost certainly be less stressful for Washington’s longtime head coach. Whether it will be more successful — and what that means for Romar long-term — is entirely up in the air.

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