It’s just before 8 a.m. at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, and here’s a cathartic sight for Washington Huskies basketball fans: Nigel Williams-Goss, two days removed from his decision to return to UW for his sophomore season, is shooting jumpers with a team manager.
Drake’s “Over My Dead Body” fills the arena, the sound pumping from a Beats Pill speaker situated near the baseline where Williams-Goss, who one week prior caused panic by making public his pursuit of an NBA draft appraisal, is hoisting shots.
This is the kind of offseason work emphasized this spring by coach Lorenzo Romar — shooting, more of it than usual — who sat down last week for a wide-ranging interview with The News Tribune.
Romar’s 12th season as Washington’s coach was unremarkable and, therefore, frustrating. Just ask Twitter. Injuries in the frontcourt — along with the NCAA’s new emphasis on hand-checking — forced Romar to tweak his defensive philosophy. That area of the game was too often porous. As a result, the Huskies finished with a 17-15 record (9-9 in Pac-12 play), lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, and, lacking even an NIT invite, did not participate in the postseason for the first time since 2007. Attendance is down, too, as the Huskies averaged just 6,581 fans per home game, and never drew more than 7,647 to 10,000-seat Hec Ed.
Three consecutive seasons have passed without UW appearing in the NCAA tournament, the longest drought of Romar’s tenure. For this reason, fan unrest is perhaps more palpable than at any point during the past 12 seasons. That Romar’s success raised expectations is moot. Free passes are not given by those behind keyboards.
Romar hears it. He understands it. He politely disagrees with the notion of a falling sky.
“Did we have a couple of mediocre seasons? Yes. Definitely,” Romar said, seated in his office upstairs in Hec Ed. “Seasons that did not match the standards that we set for our program? Yes. Absolutely. But are we on a downward trend with no recovery? With no hope in sight? Absolutely not.”
THE RETURNING ROSTER
Romar, 55, is big on historical context. He reaches into the vault for a handful of examples of prior teams that made good when all appeared bad.
His first team at UW in 2002-03, for example, finished 10-17. And Romar tells of an uncertain future at that time, and of a team comprised of promising but unproven prospects.
There was Nate Robinson, the 5-foot-7 football player who decided instead to focus on hoops. “They thought he was a sideshow,” Romar said.
Will Conroy, who eventually set the school record for career assists, still wanted to shoot all the time. Brandon Roy, who eventually crafted a career among the best in UW history, played in only 13 games after an eligibility battle and averaged only 6.1 points per game.
“So when you look at that team, and you say, ‘How are you going to be next year? They’re going to be terrible! They don’t have anything.’ But guys got better,” Romar said. “Within our program, internally, we got better.”
Obviously, that 2003 team improved into an NCAA tournament participant the next season, then made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances the next two years, success unprecedented on the basketball court at UW.
Of course, they did have Roy, who wound up an NBA lottery pick, and Robinson, whose freakish athleticism landed him in the first round of the NBA draft after his junior season in 2005.
Does such talent exist on the current roster? C.J. Wilcox, the team’s leading scorer last season and second-leading scorer in school history, is gone, awaiting the NBA draft. Williams-Goss is the team’s best returning player, coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Andrew Andrews (12.3 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting), Mike Anderson (played out of position in the frontcourt much of the year) and Darin Johnson (spotty playing time as a freshman, but played well down the stretch) are returning guards who will be relied upon to shoot better and with more consistency. Donaven Dorsey (Timberline High) and Quevyn Winters (Indian Hills Community College, via Duquesne) will be new additions with opportunity to contribute immediately.
Jernard Jarreau, a 6-foot-11 forward who Romar was convinced would make a large leap last season as a third-year sophomore, is on track to return from an ACL injury that ended his season on opening day. He is expected to resume sprinting, jumping, cutting and the like in late July or early August. Shawn Kemp Jr., a 6-foot-9 forward, will return for his senior season. Incoming freshman Tristan Etienne, a 6-foot-9 forward from Abbotsford, B.C., should help bolster frontcourt depth.
But UW may have lost more there than it anticipated. Desmond Simmons, who would have been a fifth-year senior, chose to transfer in pursuit of a bigger role elsewhere. Ideally, Romar said, he’d like to fill Simmons’ vacant scholarship with another big man. And mystery persists regarding the status of 7-foot center Robert Upshaw, the Fresno State transfer who redshirted in 2013-14 and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Upshaw sat on the bench during games earlier in the season, but wasn’t seen during the second half of the year. Romar has said several times that Upshaw is “taking care of business” off the court, but will not elaborate.
If he can play, UW will have the kind of rim protector Romar believes is essential to properly defend in this new era of anti-handchecking. If not, the Huskies might again find themselves with a hole in the middle.
Asked about Upshaw last week, Romar said: “I’d love to go on for 30 minutes about everything, but I’d just rather keep it there. This is a situation (that) before you can get on the court, whether it’s here or somewhere else, you just have to take care of your business away from the court.”
A PHILOSOPHY CHANGE
Despite a belief that his process, his system, his philosophies still work, Romar is not resistant to change. He proved that by straying from his signature pressure defense last season, though he admits that “ideally, I’d love to go and pressure the ball.”
His recruiting philosophy has changed, too. It’s not that he won’t recruit prized, one-and-done prospects anymore. He just won’t wait for them to make up their minds while still-talented, less-recruited players sign elsewhere.
During UW’s three-year NCAA tourney run from 2009-11, Romar said, “we had a situation where we had some student-athletes out there that told us early, ‘When it’s all said and done, this is what I probably want to do. I love you guys, I’m going to go through this process, but there’s a good chance I’m coming with you.’ And they were such high-profile players that it was hard to just tell them, ‘We’ll give you two months. If you don’t come with us by then, we’re going with someone else.’ So we took a calculated risk. I took a calculated risk.
“And one of those guys was Nigel Williams-Goss. He came. But there were several others we thought were going to come with him. So we took that risk to hold out and wait for those guys. And we didn’t get them. And because we took the risk to hold out on them, we missed out on some others that maybe would have come, but didn’t want to wait.”
Washington’s defensive struggles in 2013-14, Romar said, indicate a need for increased accountability. There were times amidst the growing pains, he admits, when “I probably allowed too much slippage, trying to work through all that, sort through all that.”
It’s on him to correct it. He’s not thought to be near the hot seat, though athletic director Scott Woodward declined to be interviewed for this story. Romar’s contract doesn’t expire until March 2020. In that regard, he remains in an enviable position.
The criticism won’t quiet until the Huskies return to the NCAA tournament. But Romar believes he deserves to survive the noise.
“Again, with different programs, high-profile programs around the country — an Indiana, where every now and then there’s going to be some slip-ups. I think at that point where you compare our program to the history of the program, I think we’ve earned the right to have a couple slip-ups, when you look and everyone else has,” Romar said.
“We just can’t stay there. The standard that we’ve created, hopefully we get back to that standard and we’re going to try to elevate. The goal is to not ever be complacent.”