BY Bob Sherwin 10:25PM 10/15/2010

Romar’s program succeeds and sustains

Experience is the key to the Huskies’ season

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has built a sustainable program out of a struggling one. (Drew Sellers/Sports Press Northwest)

How seemingly impossible it is in this era of capricious players, alluring contracts and greedy agents to put together a consistent and sustainable college basketball program.

The hoops you have to jump through.

An argument could be made that Husky coach Lorenzo Romar, entering his ninth season as head coach, has accomplished that as well as anyone in the country. When he took over the program from Bob Bender in 2003, the Huskies had a 31-58 record over the previous three seasons, including 14-40 in Pac-10 play.

Within two years, the Huskies were in the NCAA Tournament, albeit with a core of Bender recruits. In 2005, they were honored with one of four No. 1 seeds in the Tournament and reached the Sweet 16. They have been to the Sweet 16 twice since, including last season.

The Huskies have advanced to the Tournament in five of the last seven seasons, the most prosperous period since the school formed its first basketball team in 1896.

“That’s the whole plan and goal for a program that is going to sustain itself, that players step up each year,” Romar said this week as the Husky prepare for the season. “Our system allows for them to express themselves offensively and defensively. Someone is going to emerge because we give our guys freedom. We also can take a little freedom away.”

Some programs like the edginess and stress of a ‘one-and-done’ system, a by-product of an NBA rule instituted about five years ago. Commissioner David Stern established an age-minimum requirement of 19 – or a wait of one year – in order to be eligible for the draft. This forced the nation’s best prep players to play at least one year of collegiate ball.

Kentucky’s John Calipari has built his reputation on those short-timers. He’s like the acrobat who swings from ring to ring, grabbing on then quickly letting go of great young players year after year.

He had four freshmen, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and DeMarcus Cousins, opt out for the NBA draft last season. When he was at Memphis, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans also left after one year.

This season others may come and go at Kentucky, such as Brandon Knight and perhaps Terrence Jones, the Portland player he lured away just when it appeared the Huskies had him signed. The fact that Calipari is able to quickly churn out first-round draft choices is likely what swayed Jones’ decision.

But it’s a demanding exercise. Calipari has to almost completely turn in his cards each year then reshuffle the deck with the hope that he can be dealt a full house the next year. Noteworthy in all this is the fact that Calipari has never won the national championship.

Those ‘one-and-done’ guys generally are not attracted to Washington, although you won’t see Romar turning them away. One recent exception was center Spencer Hawes, who played one season (2006-07) for UW then declared for the draft. Sacramento took him in the first round (10th pick). That also was one of two seasons in the Romar era that the Huskies did not play in any post-season tournament.

Hawes’ case is quite uncommon. Others who left early, such as Mark Sanford or Patrick Femerling (back to Europe), were not major losses (though the Huskies certainly could have used use the reach of 7-foot-1 Femerling against Miami’s Wally Szczerbiak in their NCAA first-round 59-58 loss in 1999).

The best player in the school’s history, Brandon Roy, threatened to declare even before he played a game for the Huskies. He considered leaving at other times but stayed all four years and was an essential part of those outstanding 2005 and 2006 teams. His four-year growth and maturity allowed him to be taken as the sixth pick in the 2006 draft. His long-term commitment benefited both the player and the program.

Romar understands what maturity can do. He saw that element in those two Sweet 16 teams in 2005 and 2006. Those teams featured upperclassmen such as Roy, Will Conroy, Tre Simmons, Nate Robinson, Bobby Jones and Mike Jensen.

The 1998 Sweet team had the maturity of Femerling, Todd MacCulloch, Deon Luton and Donald Watts.

Those back-to-back exceptional teams in 1985 and 1986 had a core of mature leaders such as Detlef Schrepf, Chris Welp, Shag Williams and Paul Fortier.

Some of the best teams in the program’s history have been veteran squads, which only makes sense. It’s hard to remember any Husky team that depended heavily on a freshmen or a first-timer to lead the team. Perhaps the best example is current player, junior guard Isaiah Thomas. He averaged 15.5 points his freshman year and 16.9 as a sophomore. But the team’s focal points were Jon Brockman (two years ago) and Quincy Pondexter (last season).

Thomas didn’t have the game to leave after his first two seasons. He may now. He could decide that three is enough and if he does declare he’ll be remembered as having a lasting impact and appreciated for sticking around.

The Huskies lost their leading scorer from last season, Quincy Pondexter, a four-year player who was a first-round draft choice with the hope of making the New Orleans Jazz roster this fall. But that’s about the only measure of bad news for the Huskies entering the season. This is a team, like some of those better ones over the past couple decades, that is driven by experience.

Four of the five starters return. The primary players on this squad are three seniors, G Venoy Overton, F Matthew Bryan-Amaning and F Justin Holiday, along with three juniors, F Scott Suggs, F Darnell Gant and Thomas, so quickly an upperclassman with the promise of being the scoring and locker room leader this season.

“2006 was the last time we had this many returners that were contributors,” Romar said. “So it is good to have some familiar faces that have experienced success. Some times we’ve had returners, but those weren’t the guys who have had the big impact on our season, as much as we’ve had coming back.”

Washington is old school, continuing the tradition when guys played three or four seasons at one school. Even in this fluid era, they can still get it done without a ‘one-and-done.’


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