The nation’s No. 13-ranked college basketball team took the floor against Tulane on Dec. 22 and won, unimpressively, by a score of 66-57.
No matter. A win is, yes, a win. And the Washington Huskies had done only that in their first 11 games of the 2014-15 season, needing only to defeat Stony Brook — the school, not the stream — six days later to finish with an unbeaten nonconference record.
They didn’t, though, and that surprising loss proved to be the first blow in a season — and, consequently, an offseason —full of them.
Count the ways:
The loss to Stony Brook started a four-game skid that included consecutive losses to California, Stanford and Washington State to begin Pac-12 play.
The dismissal of star center and shot blocker Robert Upshaw for an undisclosed violation of team rules, with UW sitting at 14-5 and still in decent position to make the NCAA tournament.
Injuries to big men Shawn Kemp Jr. and Jernard Jarreau.
The subsequent and expected slide, a seven-game losing streak in which Upshaw’s absence was repeatedly noticeable. Washington finished the season with a 16-15 record and a 5-13 mark in league play – tied for the worst of coach Lorenzo Romar’s 14-year UW career – and missed the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season. Home games were typically played before a half-empty arena.
Coveted assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger left for a similar position at Iowa State, where he previously coached.
Star point guard Nigel Williams-Goss decided to transfer. To Gonzaga.
Three other players transferred, too — Jarreau (who said he was going to Oklahoma State but changed his mind last week to Tulane); reserve guard Darin Johnson (he wound up at Cal-State Northridge); and reserve center Gilles Dierickx (Seattle Pacific).
So it makes sense that during an April 16 interview in his office at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Romar was … shockingly optimistic.
“From the outside looking in, you could say doomsday,” Romar said. “But I really wish we could talk two weeks from now, three weeks from now. I think you’ll see that our program is really headed in the right direction. And you would think I’m totally making that up or I’ve lost my mind if you don’t know what I know about our program right now.”
Granted, this was before Jarreau announced his decision to transfer, but Romar’s reference to future developments proved accurate. The Huskies added to their already-touted 2015 recruiting class (ranked No. 7 nationally by Scout.com) by signing Dominic Green, Hazen High School’s all-time leading scorer, a 6-foot-6 swingman renowned for his shooting and regarded by Scout.com as a 4-star recruit.
The Huskies also added a transfer, former Auburn University forward Matthew Atewe, who must sit out the 2015-16 season but should add depth to UW’s frontcourt once he can play.
And they signed 6-10 New Zealand center Sam Timmins, a somewhat mysterious prospect who Romar believes will make an immediate impact when he arrives for the 2016-17 season.
For now, though, the Huskies have 11 scholarship players on their roster, 10 of whom are eligible to play this upcoming season — three returners (fifth-year senior Andrew Andrews; senior Quevyn Winters; sophomore Donaven Dorsey from Timberline High); six incoming freshmen (Green; Rainier Beach guard Dejounte Murray; former Clover Park and Rainier Beach guard David Crisp; Eastside Catholic forward Matisse Thybulle; Elk Grove, Calif., forward Marquese Chriss; and forward Devenir Duruisseau, originally from Palmdale, California); plus junior-college center Malik Dime.
To recap: the Huskies return exactly one player (Andrews) who played more than 15 minutes per game last season. That means Romar will be relying heavily upon freshmen — talented, heralded freshmen, but freshmen all the same — in a way that he never has.
Still, when he’s asked if the 2015-16 season can be better than the year before it, he answers definitively: “That’s why I have a smile on my face. There’s not any question. The guys that are here right now are on the same page. The guys that are coming in … they’re winners, and they’re totally committed to the University of Washington.
“… There’s not a whole lot of talk amongst these guys about anything but putting Washington back on the map. Returning Washington to national prominence. That’s what these guys are all talking about.”
That attitude, Romar said, should help “re-establish our culture” — that’s a frequent talking point — after it went missing the past few years.
That happened because of what Romar calls a few “risks” he took in recruiting, including “the infamous class of 2012, 2013,” which featured several players —one-and-done Arizona star Aaron Gordon among them — whom the Huskies pursued but were unable to sign.
“Then when it didn’t work out, we had to make some other decisions and maybe a couple guys we took at the last minute because we took a risk,” Romar said. “We took a couple of risks. I just think that led to some of that slippage. And when coaches say, ‘We’ve got a guy that can’t do this and can’t do that, and they don’t meet our expectations,’ well, who recruited them? Well, we did. We did. So that’s all on me. But in order to make things work, there was a little bit of slippage there.”
So what does a proper culture look like?
“I think two things — guys do the right thing. Guys, they do what’s asked of them. That would be No. 2. I think No. 1 is, regardless of what your personal goals are, regardless, you sacrifice that for the betterment of the team and the betterment of the program,” Romar said.
“… When we have been successful, guys have wanted (individual accolades), but they have sacrificed those so that we can be the best we can be. And that’s the type of culture that we’ve had when we were successful.”
Hard not to read between those lines, no?
And that’s what UW’s future boils down to. If you believe the chief problem last season was the program’s culture, then perhaps the mass exodus and roster turnover is for the better. If not … well, it could be a frustrating year.
UW athletic director Scott Woodward said in February that Romar has his “full support,” and it would seem likely that, barring a catastrophically bad season, Romar will be given at least two years to mold his young roster. His contract runs through the 2019-2020 season.
“We’ve hit a lull here, there’s no doubt, where we’ve had a few seasons of mediocrity,” Romar said. “I do say that. But I am as excited right now as the day I took this job.
“… You have a head coach and a staff here who are as fired up and as hungry as any point. Haven’t forgot how to coach, how to lead this program. And pieces are in place for us to re-establish our culture and experience not only the success we’ve had, but hopefully even more success.”