Romar not a victim of his own success

SEATTLE - "There is no reason why Washington can not be at the top of the Pac-10. It is not going to happen in a day or two, there is a lot of sweat to put forth. I want this program to be as successful as it can be." Those words were spoken by Lorenzo Romar on April 4th, 2002 during his first press conference as UW's Men's Head Basketball Coach, but they ring as true today as they did back then.

During that initial press conference, Romar was insistent; don't tell him UW can't get to the Final Four. He saw it with Richard Hamilton's buzzer beater in '98; the Huskies were one step away from something they had only accomplished once in the history of the program.

He could also hear the murmurs of those watching him get the hoop dawgs off the mat. "That sounds good, but Washington doesn't do that."

How could he compete with a football school like UW? Even when he was attending Washington as a player, he was as big a UW football fan as anyone. He was there when football was King. In 2002, it still was, just 15 months removed from a Rose Bowl win over Purdue.

And lest we forget, he wasn't even the Huskies' first choice. Mark Few, Quin Snyder, and Dan Monson had all declined Barbara Hedges' overtures, apparently not buying the same spiel that reeled Rick Neuheisel to Montlake. But Romar was in, all the way.

He had tasted some success at Pepperdine, leading the Waves to an NIT appearance in year three; the following year he moved to St. Louis, where he was able to navigate a successful Conference-USA Tournament run into an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. And then the call came to coach his alma mater.

When he got the Pepperdine job, one of the first calls of congratulations came from John Wooden. The Wizard of Westwood had been one of Romar's mentors while Romar was an assistant at UCLA under Jim Harrick. That group just happened to win a National Championship in 1995.

Romar remembers the call as if Wooden rang him up yesterday. "He told me, 'Don't be good too early, because they'll expect it,'" Romar recalled with a chuckle Tuesday, as he wrapped up the UW 2010-11 season with the media.

He didn't win right away at Washington, and no one was surprised - except Romar. Going on his tenth season, Romar has taken the Huskies to the Big Dance six times.

"We're still working to where we could have a breakthrough and get beyond that," he said.

But the same murmurs he heard in 2002 have resurfaced; they have taken a different tone, a different note, but they continue to dog Romar despite his successes. No longer is the message that hoops can't compete at a football school - he dispelled that myth with back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in 2005 and 2006; now it's that he can't take Husky Hoops to the next level.

"It never ends," Romar said. "And I totally get that about sports. I understand how our success brings about higher expectations. I don't know if anyone understands our expectations are to go higher as well. I understand the criticism, but what the criticism is basically saying is that it doesn't matter that you've won a Pac-10 Championship and two conference tournament championships and been to three Sweet 16's…it means nothing, because we have higher aspirations. Well, we had higher aspirations this year."

The 2010-11 team was the first under Romar to be picked by the media to win the conference. They were returning all the key pieces to a team that made a Sweet 16 run. They added a big man in Aziz N'diaye, as well as true freshman star in Terrence Ross and a redshirt freshman in C.J. Wilcox who was quickly earning a reputation as a pure shooter.

"The team that we were thinking of putting out on the floor in the pre-season wasn't the team that was on the floor this year," Romar said, pointing to the loss of point guard Abdul Gaddy as a crushing blow to their season hopes. When Gaddy went down, Isaiah Thomas took over and played more than any other guard has had to under Romar. He ended up leading the Pac-10 in assists, and won games for them.

"By the end of the year, we literally had a chance to beat any team in the country," Romar stated confidently.

Jason Hamilton, hoops color analyst for the Washington ISP Network and a former UW player, had it right when he said this year's coaching job was the best of Romar's tenure at Montlake. He never had to deal with the debilitating injuries on the court, or the scandals off it. And yet, the Huskies were playing their best basketball by the time the NCAA Tournament came around. It wasn't the path he envisioned for this group, but he made it work nonetheless.

And now the murmurs cry out - how is Romar going to be able to replace Matthew Bryan-Amaning? The Pac-10's Most Improved Player scored 15 points and brought down eight rebounds a game. That production will be hard to replace. Washington lost a hard-fought recruiting battle with Arizona for the services of San Diego-area product Angelo Chol, and he was expected to be the future MBA.

"Every year it seems like there's something that's difficult to replace," Romar said, noting the same questions have come up when UW lost Jon Brockman, Quincy Pondexter, and now Bryan-Amaning. "We've done it in a different way."

So how might that happen? Romar said Tuesday they expect to sign one more big man with an open scholarship, and they also expect N'Diaye's development to make significant strides from year one to year two. Even though the coaches can't help him over the summer by NCAA rules, former players like Brockman, Spencer Hawes and Detlef Schrempf will be around, checking out summer run and monitoring N'Diaye's progress.

"When we played in that Carolina game…with our team last year, it would have been a real struggle," Romar said. "But it wasn't a struggle at all, because of Aziz."

N'Diaye allows Romar to tinker with new ideas, like maybe playing with four guards. Tony Wroten and Hikeem Stewart will give him even more versatility, and the return of Gaddy means the Huskies will have more size in their lineup from top to bottom than last year.

"With a guy like Terrence Ross, you can do that," Romar said when asked about maybe utilizing a four-guard lineup. "He's athletic enough, tall enough, and he'll be stronger next year. But without those five to 10 pounds of muscle, he's already shown he can score in the block. He's going to be a player that will show a lot more versatility next year, inside and out."

The murmurs are resolute in their whispers - we're not sure Romar has what it takes from a schematic and x's and o's standpoint to manufacture points in crucial moments of games. They cite the North Carolina finish, as well as the Kentucky and Michigan State games at the Maui Invitational.

Romar's response? He agrees. He's never satisfied with just being good enough to get to a certain point, regardless of the reasons why. But he also has a perspective on the game of college basketball and its history that's hard to ignore. That's why he watches every single game of the season in preparation for next season, checking out not only the flaws in his own team, but also what opponents did well, so he can maybe steal a trick or two to improve their own product on the court.

In short? The education of Lorenzo Romar doesn't stop. Instead of becoming a victim of his own success, he continues to chip away at the glass ceiling of Washington basketball, taking on the challenge of taking the program to heights it hasn't seen in nearly 60 years. Washington may not be North Carolina, Duke or UCLA, but that won't halt Romar in his attempts to push Husky Hoops perpetually toward the top echelon.

"We can conjure it up and wave a magic wand and bingo - we're Indiana, or Kansas," he said. "But when you look, it takes a little bit of time to get to that next level. Hopefully what we're doing is building blocks to get to that next step. We hadn't won a Pac-10 championship in fifty years. We just won one two years ago.

"We're looking to have that breakthrough. And wherever we are at that point, it'll put us on another track. But I do understand this about sports - whenever we do have that breakthrough, and we're on that next track or tier, they'll come a point where it's like, why can't you get to this next tier? What's wrong? And if you do that, if you ever get to the tier with those biggies - can you stay there?

"It's all relative, a never-ending quest to become the best you can be. What we need to try to do is work hard and continue to try to improve and build on the foundation that we've laid." Top Stories