State of the Program

As the Washington basketball team staggers through a second-straight mediocre season, fans are starting to grumble and they want answers. Despite the outstanding success of Lorenzo Romar's first four seasons, a year-and-a-half of average basketball has stopped the program's momentum in its tracks. In the face of player transfers and rising ticket prices, expectations are still as high as ever.

With the program's rise comes the scrutiny that accompanies success. Coach Romar isn't immune to criticism, despite the fan base's overwhelming appreciation for what he has meant to the program to date.

It's rarely easy to pinpoint why a team begins to fail in the face of high expectations, but one doesn't need to be a basketball wizard to figure out why the Huskies struggled last year. Simply put, they were young – really young. Despite the fact that during the current era freshmen are having a bigger impact than ever before, there are still relatively few of them ready to make a real difference on the floor.

For instance, Spencer Hawes was that caliber of player, but because he was surrounded by such an inexperienced group of teammates meant much of his ability went for naught.

This season is a little more difficult to diagnose, but ultimately it boils down to an overall lack of talent, magnified by what some believe is the most competitive Pac-10 conference in history. A look up and down at the conference rosters reads like an NBA draft preview. UCLA's starting lineup features four future first-round draft picks, with a fifth coming off the bench in Russell Westbrook. Arizona features two potential top-10 picks in Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger, as well as Jordan Hill. USC has OJ Mayo, Davon Jefferson and Taj Gibson. Oregon has Malik Hairston, Bryce Taylor and Maarty Leunen. California has Ryan Anderson and Devon Hardin. Washington State has Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Aron Baynes. Arizona State has Jeff Pendergraph and James Harden, and Stanford has Brook and Robin Lopez and Lawrence Hill.

Washington counters with Jon Brockman - a fringe NBA prospect, but possessing a bigger heart than most teams combined - yet still the Huskies are not a pushover despite the obvious dearth of talent.

The Pac-10 is a conference of guards, and losing Martell Webster to the NBA before he ever stepped foot in Hec Ed hurt. More painful though was the transfer of three potentially standout wings. Defensive-minded guard Harvey Perry left just four games into his Husky career after sitting out his freshmen season with a back injury. Sharpshooter Phil Nelson was a couple of years from being a complete player, but his long, athletic body and shooting touch would have made an impact this season. What is unknown is whether or not his work ethic would have prevented him from ever reaching his full potential. Adrian Oliver was a multi-tooled sharp-shooter who would have ultimately flourished in a system that values versatility and intensity.

The loss of those four talented wings probably has more to due with Washington's struggles today than lack of half-court execution, but it also underlies a potentially larger problem with coach Romar's recruiting strategy. What happens when a young player, enticed by the promise of significant playing time early in their career, are suddenly faced with the prospect of having to compete for minutes they believe they're entitled to?

Romar has never been afraid to play freshmen, despite their unavoidable flaws. One need only look at Franklin grad Venoy Overton to see both the benefits and drawbacks of relying on inexperienced players, but the best way to conceal those flaws is to blend them with veteran talent. Justin Dentmon's performance surrounded by Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones is proof of that. Look at when Taquan Porter was paired with Aaron Brooks, and it's easy to see how easily deficiencies can be masked when surrounded by the right players.

In the face of competition, players can handle a reduction in playing time two ways. They can keep their chin up, recommit themselves to practice, and work their tails off and earn their way back, or they can give up and transfer; a solution that's unfortunately become much more prevalent in college basketball over the last few years.

Managing that particular aspect of coaching is clearly something Romar and his staff have had to work on a lot - not just in the locker-room, but more importantly on the recruiting trail. As much as fans take for granted how Romar's affable personality and style of play positively impact Washington's recruiting success, it's still a process loaded with potential pitfalls. Landing top-flight talent means navigating a sea of egos and commitments, while maintaining a competitive balance on the court. Coaches also have to nurture players' growth and attitudes despite the fact that those same players are often sitting on the sidelines. It's not an easy task; it's a challenge that coaches fight tooth and nail for the privilege to have.

That brings us back to the current state of the program. Though there were reasons for optimism this season, there's no getting around the fact that the Dawgs are outgunned at most positions. Dentmon and Ryan Appleby are tireless workers, but they are consistently at a disadvantage against the rest of the conference's bevy of sensational guards. Overton could very well be the next great Husky guard, but he's a freshman and needs to find some consistency and learn how to contribute in the half-court offense. Tim Morris is a quality perimeter threat, but isn't the go-to scorer the Huskies need to catapult them into contention.

That title belongs to the wild card on the roster, Quincy Pondexter. His inconsistent play on the wing is the biggest reason the Dawgs continue to tread water. Pondexter is at times exceptional when he is able to use his athleticism to elevate over opponents for easy buckets at the rim, but his inability to read opposing defenses negates his strengths. Pondexter holds a match-up advantage athletically over most opponents, but he quickly fades from the court when he starts to second guess himself, which happens more often than it should. Without more consistent ontributions from the all important three positions, the Huskies' fortunes won't improve.

The Huskies continue to be a mixed bag underneath the hoop as well. Brockman is hands-down the toughest player in the conference, but for all of his amazing traits, he isn't the clutch go-to scorer Romar needs when the game is on the line. Artem Wallace is strong when post defense is needed and his offense has been steadily improving, but his painfully bad free-throw shooting means he can't be relied on beyond the early going. In other words - when the game is on the line, that's the last guy Romar can have out there on the floor. Matthew Bryan-Amaning is a special talent with an already dizzying array of moves for a freshman. There is little doubt he will ultimately be an impact player but he isn't going to put it all together this year.

The good news for this season is that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you have to peer down the track to see it. In terms of their conference opponents, what goes up must come down, and the Pac-10 faces an epic NBA defection at the end of the season. Nearly every team will lose several players - or in the case of UCLA, potentially all of their starters. Meanwhile, Washington loses just Appleby and Morris.

The Huskies will also get a significant boost from an exceptional recruiting class that includes one of the nation's most dynamic prep scorers/shooters in former Curtis star Isaiah Thomas, who will challenge for a starting role from the outset.

Thomas is a spectacular scorer, and if he was three inches taller we would be talking about a potential '1-and-done'-caliber athlete. As a frame a reference, Thomas is a blend of Appleby's brilliant outside stroke, combined with Overton's athleticism, court vision and energy. If it sounds too good to be true, that's because his defense has been described as non-existent to merely average, which is why questions remain about his readiness at the top D-1 level. If Coach Romar and his staff can coax him to play defense like Nate Robinson instead of Taquan Porter, Thomas could be the next national-caliber star for the Huskies.

6-foot-6 wing Scott Suggs comes into the program this fall with explosive upside. Much like current frosh Justin Holiday, Suggs will need a year or two of strength conditioning before he's ready to make his mark on the court.

Elston Turner Jr. is perhaps the biggest wild card amongst the group. Standing 6-foot-5 and possessing point guard skills, above average range and a fully developed frame, Turner isn't going to overwhelm anyone with his athleticism, but that doesn't stop people from comparing him to former UCLA star Arron Afflalo. Whether or not he possesses the competitive drive and killer instinct that made Afflalo so special, only time will tell. Regardless, he should make the competition for minutes in the backcourt interesting.

Tyrese Breshers rounds out the 2008 class. Breshers is a shot-blocking, 6-foot-6 forward with a massive wingspan and explosive first step. He will need at least a year to condition his body, and won't be needed to contribute much next season.

The quartet of Brockman, Bryan-Amaning, Thomas and Overton have the potential to make plenty of noise next season, but the biggest question is who starts at the third guard spot. If Pondexter doesn't take a step forward before next season who will? Holiday has proven he belongs on the court defensively, but he has yet to develop into the scoring threat essential for that position. Joel Smith is a gifted shooter, but he'll likely never be more than a role player. That leaves the position up for grabs between the newcomers. 6-foot-9 Redshirt freshmen Darnell Gant will most likely end up a wing, as he possesses a fine 3-point shot, excellent handles and most importantly, is a standout defensive player. Suggs has limitless potential, and Turner has the most complete game of any of the 08' class but lacks the height preferable to play the three in the Pac-10.

For Washington to return to the upper echelon of the Pac-10, a standout wing must emerge for Coach Romar. In the current systems, the third guard is expected to wear more hats than any other position on the court. Whether it's leading a fast break, creating turnovers on the perimeter, hitting a clutch three or defending a bigger post player on the block after rotating off a smaller guard, the three has to do it all. They have to be the most versatile player on the court. Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones were those players - the essential cog in the engine - and for the Huskies to soar again, that player has to materialize. That position alone holds the key to Washington's renaissance, and Romar has recruited a quartet of them. Only time will tell if Gant, Holiday, Turner or Suggs can be that player.

As for the Huskies' Pac-10 opponents, even national-power UCLA has concerns, though this may be the last time one can say that for many years. They'll lose several players to the draft - as few as two and as many as five - but even assuming that Darren Collison, Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute leave early, that still leaves the finest back court in the country in Josh Shipp, Russell Westbrook and freshmen sensation Jrue Holiday. The Bruins' place atop the conference should remain secure unless Shipp and Westbrook (who is a likely lottery pick whenever he decides to turn pro) both move to the NBA.

The rest of the conference is in flux, especially in the post. Luenen, Robbie Cowgil (WSU) and Lorenzo Mata-Real (UCLA), all graduate and Alfred Aboya (UCLA) has indicated he may graduate early as well. But the biggest impact will come from NBA defection, where Love, Lopez, Mbah a Moute, Hardin, Anderson, Jefferson, Gibson and Hill are all expected to give the pro ranks a serious look. This is good news for the Huskies, and for the first time in several years there isn't a Love or Lopez looming on the horizon.

In a nutshell, if Brockman doesn't do the unthinkable and try to make an early jump to the NBA, he could put up some seriously gaudy numbers in 2008-09, and would be an early favorite for All American honors.

UCLA is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the dominant program on the West Coast. But after that, no program stands above the rest for conference supremacy. With Collison, Mayo, Bayless, Budinger, Harden, Shipp, and Westbrook joining the posts in the NBA and seniors Hairston, Taylor, Weaver and Low, all graduating, the conference could potentially lose 90 percent of its top players. If this season was the year of the Pac-10, than next season will truly deserve the label of the 'Wild Wild West'.

Take heart Husky fans. Despite the mess that has become the 2006 recruiting class, the 2007 group is a much more complete cast of players and will hopefully make the last two seasons a memory. Romar is still the same charismatic basketball teacher the city of Seattle fell in love with six years ago and the Huskies will have Brockman and a more experienced, complete supporting cast to help him navigate a conference potentially in tumult next season. Top Stories