After a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar remains excited about the upcoming season for his Huskies.
The Huskies won their first 11 games of 2014-15 and reached as high as No. 13 in the AP poll before going 5-15 down the stretch. The implosion marked the fourth consecutive year Washington missed the NCAA tournament and saw its number of wins decrease. Romar, who is entering his 14th season in Seattle, thinks injuries and bad luck played a part in the disastrous finish, but he also pinpointed problems with focus and work ethic.
“I felt like prior to the Christmas break, we had togetherness about our group. So then we drop one, and then we drop a few,” Romar said. “But we had other teams where we went through a stretch, where we lost two or three in a row and had teams that went to the Sweet 16, and won the league. I felt like we would bounce back.”
Instead, the team dismissed center Robert Upshaw, who at the time was leading then nation in blocked shots, in January. Upshaw’s absence, combined with injuries to forwards Jernard Jarreau and Shawn Kemp Jr., led to the season’s lowpoint: a seven-game losing streak that stretched from Jan. 25 to Feb. 15.
“We ended up having to revamp what we did offensively,” Romar says. “Having to put five guards on the court at once, with the tallest guy being 6’5”, is not ideal. And then we lost our confidence as a team and there went the struggles.”
Romar now refers to last year as “the lost season.” But even after it was over, the damage wasn’t done. Four players, including leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss, decided to transfer. (Williams-Goss in now with Gonzaga.)
So why is Romar so excited about the future? He believes in the youth movement that’s underway with his roster. Washington will feature seven freshmen vying for playing time, an incoming class that was ranked in the Top 10 by several recruiting services. Five of those players—guards Dominic Green (who originally committed to Arizona State), Dejounte Murray, Matisse Thybulle, forward Marquese Chrisse and center Noah Dickerson—were in Scout.com’s Top 100 for the class of 2015.
Only three lettermen return, but Romar is already making sure that he makes no excuses about expectations with his green roster. “There will be zero tolerance for a lack of effort,” Romar says. “There will be zero tolerance for a lack of intensity, a lack of focus.”
Instead, with the talent he has again assembled, Romar believes that he’ll be able to get back to the style of play that made his teams so successful from 2009-12. “Make no mistake about it, we are going run, play an up-tempo style,” he said. “Our length and athleticism will be a strength (as will) the fact that we have multiple players that can make plays.”
Romar wants to return to man-to-man defense, and he expects sharp improvement on offense, where last year the Huskies averaged 69 points a game and shot 44% from the field.
One of those players expected to contribute immediately will be Thybulle, a 6’6” 185-pound four-star wing from Sammamish, Wash., who committed in September. Thybulle is one of eight players from the state of Washington on this year’s team.
“We are tall, long, just extremely athletic and we are going to be fun to watch,” Thybulle says. “We have all the right tools to be a great team. But with us being so young, there is going to be a pretty quick learning curve.”
Murray, another talented freshman and top-50 recruit, came in the program only 170 pounds on his 6’5” frame, but has added about 10 pounds of muscle. He’s also shown some leadership qualities, which the Huskies sorely need.
“My goal is to work hard and play hard, and do whatever I need to do for the team,” Murray says. “It's a team game and I know I won't be successful without the help of my teammates. Just watch, the togetherness and chemistry and the way we push each other will help us.”
Veteran leadership will come from captain senior guard Andrew Andrews, who was second on the team last season in scoring and is the only returning player who has logged significant minutes with Washington.
Andrews and the young Huskies will be tested right away, with a season opening game on Nov. 13 against Texas in Shanghai, China, and the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas, during Thanksgiving weekend, which also features the Longhorns as well as Syracuse, Gonzaga, UConn, Michigan, Texas A&M and Charlotte.
This is a critical season for the 56-year-old Romar. His name has been on proverbial hot seat lists for a couple seasons. Although he has piled up 270 wins, six NCAA tournament appearances and five regular season or conference tournament titles, he hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since 2010.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward says that, while he is proud of the job that Romar is doing with the student-athletes, he admits being disappointed about not seeing the program in the national spotlight year after year. “Our expectations are to be one of the top universities in the country, no what matter what we do,” he says. “Of course, we want to break through the ceiling and get past the Sweet 16. The truth is, the postseason is a minimum for this program, but more importantly we want our kids to do the right thing, obey the law and help us be successful.”
While there was no talk of changing direction in the program—Woodward says every coach in the athletic department is evaluated at the end of each season—Romar is under contract at $1.7 million a year through the 2019-20 season, with a $3.5 million buyout.
After 19 years as a collegiate coach at Pepperdine, St. Louis and Washington, Romar says he doesn’t know if or even he will call it quits because he is having too much fun.
“I would hope to be coaching at least 10 more years if things are going well,” he says. “When 10 years gets here, maybe another five, if I am able. I don’t have a set time.”
The only thing that elicits more excitement from Romar than the prospect of coaching this young team is a surprise from a man who describes himself as “boring and basic.” Midway through an interview, he reaches across his desk in his office and reveals a business card that reads, “Lorenzo Romar, Certified Dominologist.”
Washington fans are hoping that, when the dominoes fall this season, Lorenzo Romar has a surprising resurgence in store.