Success means bucking trends

The momentum that Bob Bender had in the late '90's, when he led the UW into the postseason in four consecutive seasons (1996-99), quickly faded over the course of his last three seasons at Montlake. Questionable recruiting and a constant stream of players transferring out of the program plummeted Bender's program into a downward spiral.

Following turbulent and at times apathetic years under Andy Russo and Lynn Nance, Husky fans were excited about men's basketball when Bender was hired. He was young, fresh, and of the Duke Pedigree.

The first season his team was woeful in the won-loss record (5-22) but the brand of basketball and effort is what drew people into believing that this program would turn the corner.

It happened quickly, and Bender posted a 16-12 record and an NIT berth in just his third season as the Husky coach. He followed that with a 17-11 and another NIT appearance before his finest season, a 20-10 effort and an NCAA sweet-16 showing in 1998.

The corner was turned so quickly, no one could've known that lurking around the next corner was a bottomless pit.

The Huskies went just 31-58 in the years that followed Deon Luton, Todd MacCulloch, and Donald Watts, including a putrid 14-41 record in conference play.

Suddenly it didn't matter how nice of guy Bob Bender was. Although he still ran a clean program with integrity, the bottom had clearly fallen out of his nice four-year run after going 17-11 and making another NCAA appearance in 1999.

After a decade of mediocrity and watching players like All-American guard Dan Dickau, starter Senque Carey, and freshman starter Erroll Knight leave for other schools after only a year or two in the purple and gold, the red flag went up.

In late March, Bender was asked to step down. After a frenzied three-week search for a replacement, it was former Husky guard Lorenzo Romar, the coach at Saint Louis University, who accepted the job. Romar is known for his ability to recruit in Southern California and already has signed on one recruit from the area, forward Bobby Jones from Long Beach Poly.

It's a good start but it's just the beginning of the road Romar must repair, repave, and restore to turn around a dormant Husky program that's been fighting to stay out of 10th place in the Pacific-10 in a state-of-the-art $40 Million facility.

Having closely covered the team over the last two seasons, here are some of the changes I feel that Romar is going to have to make to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

Recruiting big men
Last season the Huskies were more athletic than they had been in a decade, yet it didn't matter because they didn't have enough big bodies. Senior center Marlon Shelton, who stands 6-11, missed the season due to a knee injury. 6-10 big man Anthony Washington failed to qualify academically, and 6-8 freshman Mike Jensen redshirted while healing from a shoulder injury. That left senior David Dixon (6-11) and true freshman Jeff Day (6-9) as the only players taller than 6-7.

Bender wasn't able to get big men to come to Seattle and it caught up with him. Some players that he and his staff missed on that could've helped his fortunes include Curtis Borchardt (Stanford), Julius Hicks (Oregon), Patrick Dennehy (New Mexico – has since transferred), Michael Fey (UCLA), Sean Mallon (Gonzaga), and Kevin Field (Oregon State). He never did take a look at Phil Cullen, a raw kid from Chelan that is now playing for Rick Majerus in Utah.

Ryan Hollins, a 6-11 center from Muir High School in Pasadena, recently chose the hometown school in UCLA over Washington. Hollins had first signed with Saint Louis, but withdrew once Romar left for the UW. Many thought he was a lock to chose the Huskies and follow Coach Ro, but interest from Steve Lavin and the storied Bruin program was enough to convince him to stay home close to friends and family. That is the uphill battle Romar must wage.

Establishing a consistent rotation
Last season Bender shuffled his rotation on a game-by-game basis. It seemed to erode any confidence that his team may have had. It started with Erroll Knight, who began the season on fire but got into an early slump. Bender moved him in and out of the starting lineup, and Knight struggled to grasp his role, whatever it may have been. By season's end, the sky-walking specialist was reduced to a perimeter shooter who'd come up with an occasional tip-jam. For this six-foot, seven-inch former Washington State Player of the Year, his game regressed as the season moved on. Knight will now try his fortunes under Mark Few at Gonzaga.

Josh Barnard, Curtis Allen, and CJ Massingale were others who were affected by the rotation (or lack thereof). All had their moments but they were usually followed by spells of confusion. Allen had a night when he dished out 15 assists and weeks later was replaced by freshman Will Conroy as the starting point guard. Barnard lost complete faith in his jumper when no one would set him a screen, and rarely saw the floor by the end of the year. Massingale had nights when he looked like an offensive machine, and others when he played very tentatively.

Players need to know that it is okay to make mistake. It allows them to play looser and let their athleticism come to the fore. Laziness and apathy cannot be tolerated but mistakes in the heat of battle certainly can. Bender's hook was just too quick.

Romar needs to establish a rotation with clearly defined roles for his players so they can thrive in their athleticism, not fear it. He'll have only one sure-fire starter in returning junior Doug Wrenn. The rest will be determined by competition and team chemistry this fall. Senior Marlon Shelton and freshman Anthony Washington will be battling for the starting job at center, the power forward spot will go to either Jeffrey Day, who impressed as a freshman a season ago, or Mike Jensen, who has missed the last two basketball seasons but has perhaps the most upside. The "three" spot goes to Wrenn, with incoming recruit Brandon Roy able to play solid minutes there as well, if he becomes academically eligible. At the off-guard, CJ Massingale and Josh Barnard look to have an inside track at the job. The point guard battle is a mess. Junior Curtis Allen, sophomores Will Conroy, and incoming super-athlete Nate Robinson all stand no taller than 6-2 and will have to fight for playing time. If Charles Frederick continues to play basketball, he'll undoubtedly get a longer look from Romar than the former coaching staff gave him. He is the best pure athlete on the team and has gifts that the others don't.

When practices start in mid October, Romar will need to come up with a formula for success, much the way that Nate McMillian did with the Sonics this season. He'll need to leave all of the politics from the past behind. Other than Wrenn's, no jobs need be guaranteed. McMillian benched the $87 million man, Vin Baker, and replaced him with Predrag Drobniak because the team played more in sync with the European. Romar may want to take a page out of Nate's book and not be afraid to go with what works in 2002-03, no matter what it looks like on paper.

Improving team discipline and team chemistry
When attending practices over the last two seasons, I always found myself frustrated when I left. The players looked to be going through the motions - often times not knowing what motions they were supposed to be going through. The coaches never really were respected or looked up to in the way that you'd like to see. I found myself longing for a coaching staff that laid down the law. Too often players talked back to coaches without repercussions.

Coach Romar and his staff that includes Ken Bone, Cameron Dollar, and Russ Schoene, need to immediately let the players know who's the boss. They should demand respect and rid the team of negative attitudes or unhealthy egos. If there are cliques present, Romar can, and will, break them apart and show them that the team can be much greater than the sum of it's parts.

A team is willing to fight to the end for one another, and Romar will get them to buy into his concept, I have no doubt.

Reorganizing the offense
Is anyone else tired of the "motion offense" that just didn't seem to have any motion to it whatsoever? Doug Wrenn averaged nearly 20 points per game in an offense that looked completely lost when Wrenn wasn't open. With a more organized offense Wrenn will light it up more consistently. Romar needs to work the offense through Wrenn while letting the other players on the team play off of the junior's skill at breaking down a defense.

Curtis Allen, CJ Massingale, and Josh Barnard all would benefit from ditching the motion offense. With the offense being directed through Wrenn, these players wouldn't have to work so hard to create something.

This admittedly is a simple approach, but anything would be better than watching former Assistant Coach Eric Hughes stand up and scream an offensive play to his team and watch it fizzle like a wet sparkler. Often times the "motion" offense couldn't penetrate the three-point arc. If Romar concentrates on recruiting big men, instills discipline into the team, and stops the motion offense from spinning in circles, the team will undoubtedly improve - and Doug Wrenn will likely be on his way to the NBA.

Improving transition defense
The Huskies never seem to get easy baskets. A typical set play would usually spend nearly all 30 seconds of the shot clock and result in a long-range jumper that would clang off the iron. The opposing team would pull down the rebound and push the ball down the floor for an easy two points as the Huskies were late to get back. Stanford, Arizona, and the up-tempo Oregon Ducks just embarrassed Washington in transition.

Washington works so hard to get points on the board only to see them erased with uncontested lay-ups at the other end of the court. It might be easier to take if the Huskies could fast break and score some gimmies, but that hasn't happened regularly since 1998. Romar will need to address this. It's particularly frustrating when you consider the quickness and athleticism on the current Husky roster.

Winning at home
All good teams take care of business at home. The Huskies haven't been able to do that consistently since the 1998-99 season, when their only loss at Hec Ed came at the hands of Stanford.

Husky fans have lost faith in their team, and the excitement that should come with entering a beautiful new arena like Bank Of America just isn't there. Romar needs to find away to get the purple shirts back into the building and eventually get the home-court advantage that's imperative for success in the Pac-10. The new arena is loud, and could certainly be a tough place for opponents to play.

The saying goes, "If you build it, they will come."

Let the (re)building begin.
Joe Kaiser has covered UW men's and women's basketball for two seasons for and Sports Washington Magazine. Top Stories