It was a long winter for Lorenzo Romar and his Washington Huskies. His spring hasn't been much better.
What started out as an unlikely, record-breaking run has morphed into a programmatic meltdown that, at this moment in time, falls just short of the "pure dumpster fire" standard that has been set by programs such as SMU football, Miami football and Michigan basketball. It looks bad and is bordering on the precipice of epically-bad, but has yet to truly cross that threshold.
The question facing us and all fans who don the Purple and Gold is whether or not Husky basketball is facing a true disaster or if what lies directly before us is, in fact, the most difficult part of a major reboot of a program that has been undergoing a rebuild for a few different seasons.
Has Lorenzo Romar lost control or is this recent churn of coaches and players all part of the master plan?
To answer that question, we need to recap recent happenings in a program that has seen a ridiculous collection of highs and lows over the past six months.
- Despite being a consensus bottom-half of the conference pick, UW opened the 2014-15 season with 11 consecutive wins and a top-25 rating;
- UW's unbeaten streak came to an end in the last non-conference game of the season against Stony Brook;
- During the season, reserve Jahmel Taylor announced his decision to transfer;
- UW opened Pac 12 team in a great position to make a run towards the NCAA tournament but would go on to lose their first three games;
- Star post Robert Upshaw was booted mid-season for a violation of team rules. Nevertheless, he would go on to lead the Pac 12 in blocked shots;
- UW would go on to lose 11 of their final 13 regular season games;
- Following the season, UW would lose Mike Anderson and Shawn Kemp, Jr. to graduation and Gilles Dierckx and Darin Johnson to transfer;
- Star PG Nigel Williams-Goss, Romar's top recruit from two years ago, would also announce his intent to transfer with two years of eligibility remaining; and
- Assistant and ace recruiter TJ Otzleberger left UW to rejoin Iowa State and become coach-in-waiting for former NBA executive Fred Hoiberg.
Maybe, but maybe not.
An alternative view of the situation may reveal another interpretation of recent events.
I start with the run that UW made to open the season 11-0. There was not a single person who follows this program or Pac 12 basketball closely who wasn't surprised by that run, which included wins over two other top 25 programs. While UW really struggled with offense, which everybody expected, they were able to hold on to those wins with a focus on ball control and defense. The latter being the key as few people predicted UW to be so effective defensively or that Upshaw would be such a game-changer.
In hindsight, that run was fool's gold and a did nothing but confuse a fanbase that had just endured four straight seasons of uninspiring performances by teams lacking the local star power that had fueled dramatic runs in seasons past. With respect to the CJ WIlcox's and the Terrence Ross's of the world, where were our Will Conroy's ... our Brandon Roy's ... our Nate Robinson's ... our Isaiah "Cold Blooded" Thomas's?
The formula that had delivered so much success had been tinkered with by Romar and his staff as they attempted to take the program to the next level. But spectacular recruiting misses on guys like Terrence Jones, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon had left UW short-handed and under-manned long before the 2014-15 season had begun.
UW has always been at its best when local talent with a passion for the program and a strong trust in its coaches has bought in enough to play the kind of physically demanding game that Romar prefers to run. It has been at its worst when players with an eye for making the leap to the NBA (Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross) fail to fully commit to the up-and-down, play-all-out style that defines UW's men's basketball culture under Lorenzo Romar. The shift in strategy by Romar was ill-conceived as it required him to seek more players that didn't fit the traditional identity of his team and exposed his inability to make it gel when he couldn't (and even when he could) land those players.
Fortunately, UW and Romar both recognized the folly of this strategy and elected to shift back to a focus on local talent and recruits with strong personal ties a few years ago. Assistants Ralph Chillious and TJ Otzleberger were deftly added to staff as Romar started recultivating the local ties that had delivered so strongly for him in the past.
If you look at how the last few recruiting classes went, you could see the impact of this strategy playing out as the UW pickings for those classes were slim. The punctuating of certain classes with transfers like Mike Anderson, Robert Upshaw and Quevyn Winters - never a tactic used by Romar - hinted at the bridge strategy that Romar was putting into place as he began refocusing on local talent and as he waited for the brightest young up and comers to graduate.
The final stage of the rebuild now seems to be in place and the rotation out of the recent transfer players - including the gifted by unathletic Williams-Goss - may actually help to accelerate the transition. When you consider the nature of the talent represented by the six players coming in to the program through the 2015 signing class, you see a lot of players who fit what Romar is trying to do with his full court defense culture and his emphasis on transition offense.
Furthermore, when you take a look at the rumors floating around on the kinds of players that UW may be in on from the transfer and late signee market - guys like versatile wing Shaqquan Aaron, big-man Matt Atewe and former ASU commit Dominick Green - you see a list of players who more than make up for the talent that left (minus Upshaw) and who may all be better fits culturally for UW.
Jim Collins, the famous Harvard professor who made a career on defining the attributes that makeup companies who sustain success over decades with books like Good to Great and Built to Last says that extreme focus on the development of a highly recognizable culture is a key element in the definition of an organization built for sustainable success:
Architects of visionary companies don't just trust in good intentions or "values statements;" they build cult-like cultures around their core ideologies.
UW's movement back towards its roots and its core ideology is clearly underway. The struggles the program has endured in the past six months could certainly be viewed as diversions and potholes in the road on the route to the way back.
Or, they could be viewed as necessary steps that had to happen in order for the path to be cleared and room to be made on the Husky bus.
Time will tell. Until then, I expect that the debate will rage on here in the 'Pound and in the court of public opinion. At least we can say that the offseason won't be a dull one.