A dynamite performance at the FIBA U18 in Chile earned Markelle Fultz tournament MVP, and Team USA the championship. Many in the Pacific Northwest have to hope it’s foreshadowing for the incoming Washington Huskies freshman, and no one any more so than head coach Lorenzo Romar.
Romar and the Washington program face a pivotal 2016-17 season, after missing each of the last five NCAA Tournaments. In some ways, Romar is a victim of his own success, transforming the once down-trodden Huskies into legitimate Final Four contenders last decade.
Failure to reach the bar Romar himself set has made him a victim of some harsh media criticism recently. But even before last month, when Colin Cowherd launched into a verbal assault on Romar’s credentials that arguably crossed the line, others offered more measured skepticism of the Huskies’ direction.
Going from Pac-12 pace-setters to perennially NIT-bound — even if one of those NIT seasons included a regular-season conference championship — can murky the outlook for a head coach. The last two years have been especially vexing, because the 2014-15 campaign began with the Huskies tearing to a red-hot start and a Top 25 ranking.
But Romar, long celebrated for his character, committed to his principles and parted ways with center Robert Upshaw. Losing the 7-footer from the middle completely changed the defensive look for the Huskies, and they fell apart on the back-end.
Last season’s Washington team opened with a similarly surprising hot start in the Pac-12, leading the conference early on. A young team could not sustain its pace in a historically deep year for the league, however, and another NIT appearance served as consolation prize.
One could argue the circumstances of Washington’s current drought — a conference title one year, losing a star player due to principle — earns Romar leeway. Ditto his recent success on the recruiting trail.
However, the latter must manifest on the court, which brings us back to Chile.
Will Fultz’s freshman campaign be enough to help catapult the Dawgs into a crowded Pac-12 title race, or is it destined to unfold like previously hyped stopovers at Washington like Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten, and last year, Marques Chriss and Dejounte Murray?
That’s the big question ahead of next season’s Huskies, and the answer may well apply to more than just 16-17. With focus set to the coming year ever since Fultz announced his commitment to Washington a year ago, this could be the make-or-break year for Romar’s tenure.
As illustrated above, the one-and-done phenomenon has provided no formula for success at Washington. In similar fashion, Romar’s most success has always come with players who hang around Seattle and develop.
The mid-2000s teams that made deep NCAA Tournament runs and battled Arizona and UCLA for league supremacy featured upperclassmen like Brandon Roy, Will Conroy and Nate Robinson. As the game changed and skewed younger in the half-decade that followed, a third-year Isaiah Thomas powered the Huskies within a bucket of knocking off North Carolina en route to the Sweet 16.
Even losing Murray and Chriss, and adding a freshman who will likely be the team’s best player in Fultz, the 2016-17 Huskies might look more like the classic, successful Washington teams of Romar’s tenure.
The multifaceted skill set of Fultz — which shined in Team USA’s gold-medal run and culminated in a 23-point, five-rebound, five-assist and three-steal championship game — should allow him to transition smoothly into whatever role the Huskies need.
In turn, his role’s largely contingent on the strides Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Malik Dime make. Dickerson and Dime could mature into one of the more formidable frontcourts in the Pac-12, thus preventing defenses from overly aggressively defending the perimeter.
That’s exactly the kind of scenario Fultz needs to operate at his best — and his best may be enough to make Washington the dark-horse challenger to Arizona and Oregon.