The murmuring has started.
In the midst of what is undoubtedly Lorenzo Romar's worst season since the ill-fated 2007-2008 team that finished below .500, local fans, bloggers and national observers alike are all wondering the same thing: What has happened to the Huskies ... and is Lorenzo Romar to blame?
Before we can attempt to diagnose what has happened (and I use the term "diagnose" loosely here ... I am, after all, a humble fan who is trying to get this whole thing written before the wife puts dinner on the table), I think it is useful to acknowledge some basic truths about the program and about Lorenzo Romar.
Truth #1: Lorenzo Romar is not a master technician. His strength is not (and never has been) in developing well-oiled execution machines. Rather, Romar has always emphasized a physically intense style that features getting athletes into space and forcing the other team into mistakes. If it feels like we've been lamenting the fact that the Huskies can't execute well in the half-court offense for years it is, well, because we have. The key to Romar's success is in his ability to attract the athletes he needs to execute his philosophy in the numbers he needs to establish the depth that he requires. He is a caretaker and father figure who is more a leader-of-men than a master-of-the-hardwood.
Truth #2: UW does not enjoy a national brand upon which to build a recruiting base. We've been pretty spoiled over the last several years given the talent that has come through Hec Ed. Guys like Brandon Roy, Will Conroy, Nate Robinson, Justin Dentmon, Jon Brockman, Tre Simmons, Quincy Pondexter, Spencer Hawes, Ryan Appleby, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and Matthew Bryan-Amaning were all legit or fringe NBA prospects when Romar brought them to UW and each of them have played or had a legit shot at playing in the league. It must be noted that we've lucked out in that many of these guys were either connected to the Romar staff personally or were local products who were naturally attracted to UW based on geography even before the recruiting process kicked off in earnest.
Truth #3: UW does not have a tournament pedigree. It used to be the case that we measured tournament appearances by the number of seasons divisible by two. The recent run of tournament appearances, and a few post-season wins, is a modern phenomenon the likes of which Husky basketball has never seen. To suppose that the Huskies program is unhealthy because we might go one or two years not making the NCAAs is not an easily defensible position, no matter how entitled we think we are.
To that last truth, I hope you have enjoyed the ride this past decade. Tomorrow isn't ever guaranteed. And that leads us to the question that started this article off.
What in the name of Mark Pope has happened to this team ... and should we be concerned for the future of the program?
There can be no question that this team is as inept as any team that Romar has had since he restored the luster to the program. I think even the most positive of fans would acknowledge that we have a "talent problem" on the team. What that phrase exactly means, however, is open to interpretation. It could reference the quality of the talent on hand. It could reference balance of the skill sets (physical and tangible) on hand. It could reference the coaching of the talent on hand. Or, it could refer to the stage of the development of the talent on hand.
So, which is it?
The downward sloping trajectory of this season is a mish-mash of all those talent issues, some of which are transitional in nature and some of which are sympotmatic of weaknesses that have either always been present or have been percolating over the last several seasons. The question is whether or not the systemic issues are overwhelming the transitional issues leaving us to be legitimately concerned about the future of the program beyond this season.
Of the transitional issues, the most prominent is the overall level of talent on hand. I can't sit here and say with a straight face that this team doesn't play with effort. In fact, I think this team plays with tremendous effort and want to. The fact that they don't have a boisterous leader has more to do with the fact that they don't have a go-to talent that can take over a possession or a game as opposed to the fact that they don't care. But the fact of the matter is that this is a poorly constructed roster that, for the first time in years, has no clear NBA quality talent upon which to build upon. There are certainly guys who are capable of impacting a game - Aziz N'Dyiae and his size or C.J. Wilcox and his shot - but there are not guys who can flat out dominate even lower tier teams in this conference.
A consequence of the transitional talent issue that we are facing is the grinding to a halt of the Huskies run-and-press playing style. One of the secrets to Romar's success has been our ability to overwhelm our opponents in terms of total possessions in any given game. Currently, the Huskies average 66.4 possessions per 40 minutes. This is good for just 216th in the nation and 10th in the Pac 12. To say that this is unfamiliar territory for Lorenzo Romar would be an understatement. Check out the graph below from StatSheet. It depicts where UW has ranked in Possessions/40 mins over several years (Pac 12 ranking).
Of more concern to Husky fans would be any issues that seem to be percolating over multiple seasons. To the extent that they exist, these would be the issues that, in my opinion, warrant more examination and soul searching on the part of the coaching staff. The big one that people are pointing out is the lack of a consistent ability to generate efficient offense without relying on guys like IT, B-Roy or Q-Pon to have to break down opponents one-on-one. A perusal of different statistical indicators would seem to bear out the fact that this has been a problem that has plagued the Huskies for years. Consider Effective FG % as an indicator for this issue. Below is the ranking of the Huskies eFG% in the Pac 12 over the last several years.
At 48.8%, the 2011-12 Huskies currently rank 166th in the nation in eFG% and 8th in the Pac 12. So, yeah, the ability to execute on offense has been a struggle more than it hasn't over the last several years.
However, some of the other problems that are commonly cited by fans as evidence of "poor coaching", such as more surrendering of easy baskets, poor perimeter defense, and poor free throw shooting don't really get substantiated by the data as systemic issues. For example, Opponents Points per Possession is an easy-to-digest stat that indicates how easy it is for the opponent to score. From 2007 all the way to last season, the Huskies have improved their ranking in this category culminating in the 2010-11 season as the #1 team in the Pac 12. Last season was a big step back as opponents seemed to gash the Huskies with easy baskets a lot more. However, this year's team has actually put the Huskies back on a positive trajectory as we currently rank first in the Pac 12 in surrendering just 1 point per possession for the season.
So, where does that leave us? Probably where most of you already thought we were. The lack of a signature "Romar style" player on this roster - a playmaker who can break down an opposing defense by himself - coupled with the lack of depth required to push the pace of the game is amplifying a common weakness in every Romar team in terms of their ability to execute an efficient half-court offense. In short, this team is what we all should have expected it to be as we all recognized that there were no get-to-the-rim types of talents coming into the season. If we are to critique Romar going forward, it will be either because he is unable to adjust his style of play to account for the fact that he can't consistently get access to those types of playmaking talents OR because he is unable to get the roster reloaded with one or two of those types of players coupled with a deeper bench.
Much remains to be seen, but the evidence seems to suggest that this season is more aberration than trend. Romar and staff has clearly failed to adjust the game to the talent on hand for this season, but the story won't be complete until we see whether they can still make that adjustment or restore the roster balance that they've enjoyed in years past.