Things Are Getting Awkward for Lorenzo Romar and the Washington Huskies

The arrival of Markelle Fultz was supposed to set Washington basketball back on track. But that hasn't happened, to say the least.

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Mar 8 2017, 4:05pm

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, on the sort of beautiful late summer day that can make Seattle feel like the most perfect place on Earth, Will Conroy sat in the office above Hec Edmundsen Pavilion that he inhabits as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Washington. On an otherwise bare desk sat a copy of The Living Bible, a gift from head coach Lorenzo Romar.

Ten years earlier, Romar had given Conroy a standing invitation to join the Huskies coaching staff, provided he finished his degree. Conroy did both of those things in 2015 after finishing a playing career that had led him from the University of Washington to 14 different professional teams in five different countries. Conroy arrived with deep connections to the Seattle community and an optimism about the program that permeates through his voice.

"You know," Conroy said, "this is getting ready to be a really, really fun time around here."

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Conroy had reason for optimism. Washington had just seen two freshman from the 2015-2016 team, Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, become first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. Replacing them would be incoming freshman Markelle Fultz, a guard from Dematha High School in Maryland who was a McDonald's All-American, a probable NBA Draft Lottery selection, and exactly the type of national recruit that the Huskies had never been quite able to sign in years past. Leading the Huskies' 2017 recruiting class was Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant-like wing who is the top-ranked player in the country, just so happens to be Romar's godson, and also just so happens to be coached by the best player in the history of Huskies basketball, Brandon Roy.

A few days after that morning in Conroy's office, I sat in the Huskies' practice gym for one of the summertime open runs that have become staples of the Seattle basketball scene and watched Porter dominate a game that featured past and present NBA players Isaiah Thomas, Jamal Crawford, Spencer Hawes, Nate Robinson, and Nick Collison, as well as several overseas pros. Seeing Porter hit deep threes and throw down effortless two handed dunks in traffic against legitimate NBA players, it was easy to imagine Washington rising to the level of schools like Duke and Kentucky, and contending for NCAA championships.

That was then.

Over the last six months, the Huskies have plummeted. They enter Wednesday's PAC-12 tournament with an overall record of 9-21, and a conference mark of 2-16. They have lost their last 12 games, including a 41-point loss at home to UCLA in February that was Romar's worst at Washington. His team sits at 11th place in the conference, ahead of only the 5-26 Oregon State Beavers. The end of a dismal season appears near.

All of this has taken place despite Fultz being nothing short of spectacular. Despite dealing with a sore knee that forced him to miss multiple games in February and at least the first game of the PAC-12 tournament, he averaged 23.2 points per game—the sixth-highest mark in college basketball—along with 5.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists, numbers that have made him a Wooden Award finalist. According to recent mock drafts by ESPN and Draft Express, he's the projected first overall pick in June's NBA Draft; if his stock holds, he will become the first player selected in the draft's top three picks to come from a college program with a below .500 record since LaRue Martin was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1972. Porter could very well be the top pick in the 2018 draft, and if that happens, the Huskies would be the first school to have consecutive No. 1 overall picks since Duquesne University produced Sihugo "Si" Green and Dick Ricketts in 1955 and 1956.

In other words, the current state of Washington under Romar—producing NBA-worthy talent, but also consistently failing to win—is pretty much unprecedented in the history of college basketball.

Markelle Fultz has been great for UW, but not nearly enough. Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports.

Speculation about Romar's job security has been rampant all season. On Monday, Yahoo!'s Pat Forde reported that school administrators have no intention of paying the $3.2 million dollars to buy out Romar's contract, and will keep him as head coach for another year. Washington has disputed the report, saying no decision has been made and that Romar's future will be evaluated after the season ends. Complicating matters is the fact that Romar has put together one of the nation's top recruiting classes for next year. If the Huskies pull the plug, they won't just be eating $3.2 million—they might be sabotaging a potential turnaround.

When Romar took over the program in 2002-2003 season, it was mired in mediocrity; since 1986, only the Todd MacCullough-led squads of 1998 and 1999 had reached the NCAA Tournament. Romar built his team around a core of hard-nosed, unheralded local players who would come to define the following decade of Seattle basketball. Robinson came to Washington from Rainier Beach High School in South Seattle on a football scholarship before shifting to basketball. Roy came from Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District, and had workied on the docks at the Port of Seattle while getting his test scores high enough to meet the NCAA requirements. Conroy, who walked onto the team in 2001, and Tre Simmons, who transferred in from Green River Community College in 2003, were Roy's former high school teammates. Together, they reinvigorated the program.

In Romar's second season, the Huskies made the NCAA's; in his third season, they earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament's West Region and reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Louisville. Five of the seven top scorers on that 2004-2005 squad were from the greater Seattle area. The Huskies returned to the Sweet Sixteen the following season, but after Roy's departure in 2006, they didn't reappear until 2008, when they were led by a freshman point guard from nearby Tacoma named Isaiah Thomas.

Washington reached the NCAA Tournament during all three of Thomas's seasons, advancing as far as the Sweet Sixteen in 2009. Since Thomas's 2011 departure, however, the program has slid into disappointment and renewed mediocrity. In 2012, the Huskies won the PAC-12 regular season title but infamously became the first and only power conference regular season champion to not receive an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Around the same time, Romar shifted from a high-tempo, high-pressure that had defined his tenure into more plodding, half-court, high post offense that saw limited results.

Romar cited a lack of talent when making the shift. When Fultz gets drafted this June, Washington will have put 16 players into the NBA over Romar's 15-year tenure, nine of them first round picks. From 2012-2017 alone, the Huskies will have produced five first round NBA draft picks––as many as current top-ranked Kansas likely will have produced over that same span.

During that time, Washington has not made a single appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

When asked after the 41-point loss at home to UCLA about his job potentially being in jeopardy, Romar attributed the disappointment of the season in large part on the unexpected departures of Murray and Chriss. "We had a couple of guys that were fantastic basketball players that we didn't plan on going to the NBA in Dejounte and Marquese Chriss," Romar said. "So then when you lose the two of them, you're not starting all over, but you take a couple steps back." Obviously, the Huskies would have been a better team this season if their starting five included a projected first overall pick in Fultz, a combo guard who has played meaningful minutes for the San Antonio Spurs this season in Murray, and an athletic lottery pick who starts on the wing for the Phoenix Suns in Chriss. And some of the program's previous disappointing seasons can be attributed to talent departures.

Still, that's what happens when you recruit and develop NBA-level talent: it ends up in the league, and often sooner rather than later. Romar has struggled to adjust, and that's part of what makes his incoming recruiting class so intriguing. Currently, it's ranked No. 3 nationally by ESPN, trailing only Kentucky and UCLA. Much like the classes that led to the Huskies' success in the past, this one is also led by players from Seattle: Daejon Davis and Jaylen Nowell, both guards ranked in the top 50, are from Garfield, and Porter is from Nathan Hale High School.

Porter's path to Seattle has been a bit more roundabout—and a bit more eyebrow-raising. He spent his entire childhood and first three years of high school in Columbia, Missouri. Before his senior year of high school, Romar hired his father, Michael Porter, Sr., as an assistant for the Huskies. Romar and the elder Porter have been longtime close friends. Romar is Porter Jr.'s godfather. When the Porters arrived in Seattle, Roy happened to be looking to enter the coaching ranks at the high school level. And because the more established Seattle high school programs had equally established head coaches, Roy was hired by Nathan Hale, a suburban high school in North Seattle with very little basketball tradition.

Porter Jr. enrolled there shortly afterward Roy was named coach, then left the school after a few weeks to be homeschooled. However, he is still allowed to to play on the basketball team with his younger brother, Jontay, another Washington commit. Nathan Hale recently won the Washington state championship and is also the top-ranked team in the entire country.

If Forde's report is incorrect and the Huskies end up parting ways with Romar, it's difficult to imagine that Porter Jr. would be as committed to joining a 9-21 program that just dumped his godfather and father as coaches. In turn, the loss of Porter Jr. could put the commitments of the other four members of Washington's recruiting class into jeopardy. The school, the coach, and the players are all in a delicate situation.

It's hard to imagine Huskies basketball without Romar. He has become synonymous with the program, and even as the team has sagged on the floor, his reputation in the area is rooted in helping former players finish their degrees and get jobs. People know he's the kind of coach who leaves Bibles on desks. The network of local players who have passed through Washington is strong, bonded like a family, and Romar's program has become a pillar of the larger Seattle basketball community. The closest thing to a scandal under his watch has been his godson happening to grow into America's top high school prospect.

Does the school's administration see those intangibles as strong points, and a down season or three as temporary setbacks? Or, more cynically, will Washington keep Romar around just long enough to avoid both a pricey buyout and the risk of losing a likely one-and-done star? Conroy's really, really fun time still seems possible, but it probably needs to happen soon.

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