Head coach Lorenzo Romar had Washington basketball on the brink of joining college basketball’s elite in the 2000s. When the Huskies tip off the 2015-’16 season in Beijing against Texas, however, they’ll begin their fifth season since the program’s last NCAA Tournament appearance.
A half-decade of unrealized expectations would typically doom a coach to the hot seat, even if his past is marked with success. But Romar being afforded more time to get Washington back on track is more about his future than his past.
Romar scored a huge recruiting coup last week with the commitment of five-star shooting guard Markelle Fultz of D.C.-area prep powerhouse DeMatha.
Landing Fultz’s pledge for the 2016 signing class plants a rather significant tent pole for the Huskies’ immediate future. It also ostensibly reinserted Washington in a conversation with Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky — elite-level programs UW found itself among a decade ago under Romar.
Fultz chose Washington over that trio of squads, all likely to open the 2015-’16 ranked in the Top 25. Fultz told SI.com his goal is to get Washington to the level, as he’s “hoping to get them over the hump and make it into the Final Four.”
Fultz also offered some poignant remarks to Scout that went beyond the hardwood.
“I have a real good relationship with them. I talk to them about more than basketball. I talk to them about classwork, just good advice. It’s been a blessing to have a coach I can talk to about other stuff more than basketball. I don’t have a father, so it’s been good.”
Romar has long been recognized as one of coaching’s good guys; a mentor who connects with players beyond the court. That he’s run a clean program certainly helps alleviate some of the pressure that comes with missing the NCAA Tournament four years in a row.
His connection with players like Fultz is also a boost in recruiting, which should manifest in more victories.
Of course, the highly touted prospect won’t have any impact on Washington’s upcoming season, and Romar is in need of a return to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies were on course last year with a Top 20 ranking through the first two months, but things unraveled quickly with the dismissal of talented big man Robert Upshaw.
Without Upshaw patrolling the paint and making teams think twice before attacking the rim, the Huskies were dreadful defensively, ranking No. 119 nationally in adjusted defense per KenPom.com. They also finished 2014-’15 with a -0.6 per game rebound margin to rank No. 217.
Fultz may not be able to help right away, but reinforcements arrive from Washington’s 16th-ranked, 2015 signing class.
Romar addressed last year’s paint problems with a trio of big bodies: 6-foot-9 Marqueese Chriss, 6-foot-8 Devenir Duruisseau, 6-foot-8 Noah Dickerson and 6-foot-10 Malik Dime.
Dime, a four-star JUCO transfer from Iowa’s Indian Hills College, makes up for what he lacks in bulk with an above-the-rim style of play.
His long, slender physique and fade haircut are reminiscent of former Kentucky standout Nerlens Noel. If he can replicate some of Noel’s game, particularly as a rim-protector, Dime will play a key role in Washington making noise in the Pac-12 race.
The influx of young talent will build around senior guard Andrew Andrews. If the youngsters jell, the Huskies have the pieces to become the conference’s surprise team in a year any one of Arizona, Cal, Oregon, UCLA or Utah is expected to contend.
With a breakout 2015-’16 season, Romar can reward the Washington faithful for its patience. The Huskies already appear to be making strides back on the track Romar had them a decade ago.