Beach’s Bits: UW Future Still Bright

To call Washington’s upset victory over No. 13 Utah Saturday unexpected is a giant understatement. “Unfathomable” would better describe the outcome, and equally the fans suddenly found their collective voice midway through the second half when Washington tied the game at 45 with 11:49 remaining.

The win – the third over a ranked team this season – does little to ease the suffering of the last three months. It does however, end an otherwise dismal season on a high note.

Lorenzo Romar has taken the heat this year for the Huskies’ miserable second half. The criticism is warranted, though somewhat oversimplified and misunderstood. The program has endured a four year stretch of mediocrity previously thought unimaginable based on Romar’s prior track record, resurrecting Washington from a decade toiling in the conference cellar. But for those few fans who followed the program prior to Romar’s arrival, there’s growing sense of deja vu.

There are many reasons for the program’s drop-off and plenty of blame to go around, but at its core it boils down to one thing; the lack of homegrown talent. During the 2000’s, Washington didn’t rise to national prominence behind McDonald’s All Americans. Save the occasional local standout, those players have never been an option for the Huskies nor will they ever be.

Washington’s rise to prominence was constructed from the inside out; a handful of overlooked local prep stars playing for their home town who realized that the sum of their talents could be molded collectively into something special.

The roster build was still flawed, especially during the first few seasons. Undersized guards dominated the front court, but that didn’t matter. With a super-sized chip on their shoulder and a unified sense of purpose, the Hoop Dawgs took the Pac-12 by storm with swagger, high pressure defense, and up-tempo play.

The players played for their city, and the city responded in kind, giving the Huskies one of the most vocal home-court advantages in the country.

Washington’s recruiting evolved as the caliber of players available to them improved. The Huskies dug deep into the California prep ranks to fill out the Northwest’s shotcomings – notably Quincy Pondexter, Justin Holiday, and Darnell Gant.

The Huskies established a pipeline into Oregon as well with guys like Terrence Ross, but despite the influx of recruits from beyond the state’s borders the Huskies stayed true to their roots. Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, and Will Conroy were replaced by Isaiah Thomas, Jon Brockman, Spencer Hawes, and Tony Wroten, keeping the program firing on all cylinders until the local talent dried up.

Recruiting funnels don’t develop overnight. They take years to establish, even decades. For a program reliant on homegrown players, the Puget Sound went into the recruiting equivalent of the dot-com bust. Other than Wroten and Chelan’s Joe Harris, who followed WSU’s Tony Bennett to Virginia, the region didn’t produce a productive high major ball player from 2010 – 2013. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Had the local dip lasted just a year or two, the Huskies could have managed the downturn - but five years was untenable. With that in mind, it’s not nearly as surprising that the program hit the skids.

Not all of Washington’s woes can be blamed on the lack of local talent, though. There have been plenty of other missteps along the way.

Missed evaluations of players like Clarence Trent, Hikeem Stewart and Jahmel Taylor produced little, and skipping the 2012 recruiting class altogether – a terrible year for talent national - and the ill-fated move to the high-post offense yielded negative results.

But at its core, Washington’s ‘slippage’, as Romar calls it, boils down to a lack of talent.

Many fans seem to be under the impression that recruiting is easy, that Washington has some inherent recruiting advantage that allows them to overcome the draw of programs like Arizona and the southern California schools and other high profile programs.

Those fans need to wake up.

Washington’s facilities are antiquated by Pac-12 standards. The weather stinks here, and as much as Dawg fans would like to believe, the academic appeal of schools like Stanford and UCLA are every bit as appealing as Washington.

Seattleites are justifiably proud of their city, which is why so many local players stay home and have found so much success. They know what they’re fighting for and they’re used to the weather, plus the allure of playing in front of family and friends is often enough to overcome the inherent advantages of rival league programs.

Washington isn’t losing players to Gonzaga, Washington State, or Oregon. Those programs have had to craft their own niche to compensate for the challenges of mining talent from the Northwest. Gonzaga recruits globally, and has done so for decades. Oregon uses their Nike affiliation and world class facilities to lure players, and their willingness to take chances on riskier players certainly helps. There are few easy answers for Washington State, forced to rely almost entirely on players that have been overlooked by everyone else (Reggie Moore, Josh Hawkinson, Devonte Lacy), both locally and abroad.

College basketball is cyclical, and the state of the college game is rapidly evolving. The Washington Huskies are no longer an up-tempo team by their standards, not with every Pac-12 team going “up-tempo”. Slower-paced Pac-12 coaches like Ben Howland, Tony Bennett, Tim Floyd and Craig Robinson have been replaced by contemporaries who have adapted their style to accommodate the desires of the modern recruit who wants to “play fast.”

There’s very little to differentiate one Pac-12 system from another anymore. Talent is the key.

I’m not trying to make excuses for Washington. The coaching staff has made its share of mistakes, and they’ve struggled adapting to the many curveballs thrown their way.

Unlike UCLA or Arizona that can easily add one-and-done lottery picks to cover roster gaps, the solutions are much more complicated for UW. There are no silver bullets to alter the trajectory of the program when it comes to recruiting.

Add to fact that Washington has been brutally bitten by the injury bug the past two seasons, and the margin for error is extremely slim. Sure it’s a part of the game, but it doesn’t make it any less of a factor in their decline.

And criticize the decision to gamble on Robert Upshaw all you want, but they had to take him. He’s a once-a-decade type talent, the kind of player that Washington typically has no shot at unless they’re from the 206, like Hawes. Those players end up at Kentucky or Arizona – not UW - and you’re kidding yourself if think Washington should be a front-runner for marquee players like that.

In the rare instance where the Huskies are a finalist for out-of-town players of that caliber, it is for one reason, and one reason only - Lorenzo Romar.

Washington ended a miserable season on an incredibly high note with the win over the Utah Saturday. It was a reminder of what a Romar coached team is capable of.

Next season the Huskies will welcome in a recruiting class of explosive athletes and future impact players, a class built on local hometown favorites - including Rainier Beach hero Dejounte ‘Baby Boy’ Murray. Murray is a potential three-time state champion at Rainier Beach and a throwback Husky shot-maker not unlike Brandon Roy.

But more importantly, the Huskies’ decorated 2015 class is a preview of things to come. As evidenced by the recent WIAA State Tournament at the Tacoma Dome this weekend, the local high school ranks are bursting with talent for the foreseeable future.

If the Washington Huskies ebb and flow based on the availability of local talent, the Huskies should be in for a heck of a ride for the next few years. And there’s no one better positioned to capture that talent and make the most of it than Lorenzo Romar.

Husky fans have forgotten just how bad things were prior to Romar’s arrival, a time when sub-500 records were commonplace.

Romar changed all of that.

While he is certainly not immune to criticism, Husky fans would do well to remember how far they’ve come under Romar’s direction.

Replacing a head coach is a dangerous proposition. Just ask UCLA, or USC, or Stanford, or Cal. Replacing an extraordinary individual like Lorenzo Romar – the current Dean of Pac-12 Hoops – is a recipe for a return to irrelevance.


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