He did it his first year with the Saint Louis Billikens, becoming the first nine-seed in Conference USA history to win their conference tournament. And they did it by beating No. 1 Cincinnati along the way.
It's a Hail Mary of nearly unprecedented proportion, but one Romar has seen connect first-hand. But could UW do it without their leading scorer Markelle Fultz? Could they do it without senior Malik Dime?
On Markelle Fultz - “He’s progressing. He’s doing a little more practice. Still day-to-day but he’s been doing a little bit with us and he’ll do a little bit more. He’ll still be pretty much a gametime decision. Each day is different with it. If he continues to make progress we’re probably more optimistic than pessimistic. He’s been running around shooting, ball-handling a little bit today. We anticipate him being able to go five-on-five and then we’ll go from there. I don’t know exactly what brought it on but he’s definitely making progress.”
On if he’ll play again this year - “I’m pretty confident. I’m not a doctor but I’m pretty confident.
On keeping his spirits up - “Markelle is pretty driven and a positive guy. It says something when you’re able to overcome adversity. And he’s overcome a lot. It’s been well-noted about playing junior varsity and the next year making such an improvement that he’s player of the year in his conference and all that. He went through a tough time with his great grandmother passing around Christmastime. His mom is such a rock. His sister, people in his circle are such positive people - not unrealistic, but positive people - to where you combine someone that has not just been given everything, he’s had to work for everything, with that type of people in his life, you’re able to get through some things. And he’s brought that here with him this year.”
On a change to Malik Dime’s status - “No. Not at this point. He could play. Physically he’s able to play. We’re still evaluating everything completely. We’ll see. To be determined.”
What fact-gathering do you still need to do in order to get to a full evaluation of Malik’s situation? - “I’m probably not going to go into that. It’s probably more of a private matter with us.”
What are you playing for right now in the regular season? - “We’re trying to get as good as we can get to prepare ourselves for the Pac-12 Tournament. That’s what we’re trying to do. Like everyone is, but everyone approaches the Pac-12 Tournament for different reasons. Ours is, we know that’s our one chance at this point to make it to the NCAA Tournament. So we’re trying to prepare ourselves now.”
What would have to happen for you to win the Pac-12 Tournament? - “I’ve seen it happen before. Not a fairy tale - what actually happened - was…I was a head coach at Saint Louis and we finished eighth place in Conference USA. The last game of league we played Cincinnati on Senior Night at their place with Kenyon Martin. I remember he came out and he had tears in his eyes and I thought okay, he’s ready to play tonight. We lost by 44. It just wasn’t good. When the brackets came out we knew who was going to play who, the pairings. We looked and we knew in the second round if we won the first game we were going to play Cincinnati again. You look at that, they were number one in the country, they just beat you by 44. You have no chance. You have to win four games in four days.
“What happened was, there were a couple guys that decided that, for whatever reason at that point, they were going to do whatever it took. Word kind of got around to the team and we managed to win the first game. When we did that…if you’re winning every game you don’t feel like you can ever lose. When you’re losing every game doubt creeps in. When we won that game, I felt like let’s go. And we upset Cincinnati. They were number-one in the country. Then we won the next game and then we won the championship. We held every team under 60 points, and no one had ever done that in Conference USA.
“There was an attitude change, there was a togetherness, there was a buy-in…all of that happened and for four straight days pretty much everyone stepped up and played well.
“So you ask me, what would have to happen? What did happen was that.”
Are their traits in this team similar to that Saint Louis team? - “The one thing, the difference was, that team was older. This team is younger. There was some inconsistencies at times, we had lost leads at times.”
On Atewe not playing the last couple games - “Just matchups and Sam started doing what he’s doing. He’s gotten the nod more. We’ve played with small lineups also. So you can’t play everybody.”
Do you have to play different without Fultz, or can you go with the same game? - “No. I thought the Colorado game, and even in Utah, we played a little differently because we played a lot more conservative without Markelle in there. We had to be a lot more calculated. Maybe that’s what this team needs to do, needs to play this way even when Markelle comes back.”
How hard is it to believe you can still beat good teams without Markelle? - “Subconsciously you go out there without your leading scorer, leading assister, leading playmaker, all that - you know you’re not playing with a full deck. I didn’t think we went out there not believing we could win when we were in Colorado and Utah. I thought we went out there in both games and tried to play right. Utah went on a huge run after we were up 18-10 and that kind of changed the whole momentum of the game. But I don’t think our guys went out there and played like we don’t have a chance to win.”
With things as they are, has there ever been a thought about resting Fultz more or not play him at all? - “He’s not been allowed to play. Markelle, you have to hold him back from wanting to play. If you’re playing horse or playing on the playground or playing on 8-foot rims, he wants to play. But he was held back from playing. So no. Where we’re at in the season has nothing to do with if he’s playing or not.”
Has doubt crept into your mind as a coach and your ability to coach? - “That’s a fair question. If I was a head coach where I’d been a head coach for maybe three years and every year we’d had losing seasons? Maybe that would be the case. But as a head coach I’ve been involved in a lot of wins and some successful teams and have tasted it. So no, I don’t doubt myself. I continue to look at ways to try and find a way to get it done and to be better. But I don’t doubt myself. Fair question.”