For yet another March, the Huskies’ basketball program is the acme of awkwardness.
Headed into Thursday night’s games, every team in the Pac-12 has lost at least four conference games. The Huskies have lost nine, which includes, in order: By five at home to Arizona, by five at home to Utah, by one on the road at Colorado, by three at home to Cal, by one on the road at Oregon State. All after beginning the conference season 5-1.
Fifteen points over five games is the difference between being seventh in the conference and tied for first.
Yet, this will be the fifth consecutive year that Washington will miss the NCAA tourney, meaning the fire-Lorenzo-Romar crowd is getting new members by the hour.
The Montlake constituency is a little like the Republicans and their presidential aspirations — as many are trying to dump Donald Trump as elect him.
Awkward. But at least the Huskies have the NIT. The Republicans’ backup tourney is Bob Dole.
The narrative arc of the UW season was no good for anyone vulnerable to motion sickness.
The freshman-festooned Huskies, abandoned by all upperclassmen save for senior guard Andrew Andrews, were picked to finish 11th in a conference media poll. But they began the conference season 5-1 by playing like five puppies under a blanket. But the pups tired, crashing to 4-8 the rest of the way. They were 0-6 against the the top four teams: Oregon, Utah, Cal and Arizona.
Bereft of post play, pickled with freshman mistakes and limited by a mediocre bench, the Huskies actually did OK to get to 9-9 (17-13 overall). They led the conference in blocks, steals, (probably) dunks and had a 47-point game from Andrews against the woebegone Cougars Wednesday.
But this team is not built for the feat of four wins in four days at the Pac-12 tournament next week in Las Vegas, the requirement to get the conference’s automatic entry to the madness. Thus, sadness at Montlake.
The biggest criticism of Romar is his frequent inability in the late going to get his players sufficiently organized to set up someone for a high-percentage shot. Be it an in-bounds play, a transition basket or a ball screen that leads to something easy inside, the Huskies often fell back to solo hoists and emotional letdowns.
If Andrews didn’t hit a three, then the playbook was almost exhausted.
Having said that, in the bigger picture, Romar’s program for 15 years has been low-maintenance. I know that fans drunk on bracketology don’t want to hear that. They believe the highest purpose for our big universities is entertainment for the masses. The oh-by-the-way ideas of a bit of education and development of manners are nuisances.
Romar has had his personnel mistakes with players such as Venoy Overton and Robert Upshaw. But a quick survey of the college basketball landscape in the time of one-and-done, rampant transfer and decrepit NCAA enforcement, reveals carnage up to the belly of the beast.
To cite two very related examples, consider Pitino, father and son.
Richard Pitino has coached the Minnesota Gophers for three years, and according to this story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, has kicked off three of his recruits for breaking rules and suspended three more Sunday following the release of an explicit photo on social media.
His father, Rick, as you may have heard, is still reeling from the season’s most notorious episode, in which a woman, Katina Powell, disclosed in a book that she brought prostitutes, including her two daughters, to a campus dorm to entertain University of Louisville recruits with sex. The escort scandal, for which Pitino claimed complete ignorance, caused the UL administration to ban the Cardinals from the NCAA tournament while the investigation continues.
We could go on, because misbehavior, cheating, bribes and academic fraud have gone on for decades, from North Carolina to Syracuse to UCLA under the sainted John Wooden. College basketball, under the false veneer of NCAA amateurism, is a dirty business.
Scott Woodward, now at Texas A&M but the Washington athletics director who extended Romar’s contract through 2020, did so primarily because he knew that if he was away for the weekend, Romar wouldn’t trash the house.
I doubt Woodward felt that comfort with former football coach Steve Sarkisian, whose age (34 at his hire), inexperience (never been a head coach at any level) and bar tabs (many) justified the apprehension. Imagine how things at Montlake might be today if Sarkisian’s alcohol problems had blown up at midseason while he had the Huskies job.
College sports fans don’t care about those things until their programs become scandalized. After the UW was convulsed by the 1993 scandals under Don James and again a decade later under Rick Neuheisel, Woodward took steps, in the extension of Romar and the hire of Chris Petersen (and after the whiff on “bad cop” Tyrone Willingham) to make sure Washington would be far less likely to be nationally embarrassed again.
That part of the UW program is working.
The scoreboard payoff looms on the football field, based on the promise at the end of last season. At Hec Ed, 6-5 shooting guard Markelle Fultz from Washington D.C. is said by some to be the best recruit in Romar’s tenure. Along with big man Sam Timmins from New Zealand, the Huskies can reasonably be said to be a conference title contender next season, even if Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray foolishly leave early for the NBA draft.
It is too bad that the Huskies will miss the party this year. But it is good not to be in rehab or in the NCAA doghouse. Ask Sarkisian and the Pitinos. Ask any Huskies sports fan with a memory.