It has been a rollercoaster year for Husky basketball, with the team losing to the likes of South Dakota State on some nights, and trouncing talented teams like Arizona on others. And yet despite the inconsistency, it's possible to make the argument that this has been Lorenzo Romar's finest coaching performance in his ten years at UW.
Standing in the way of the Big Dance and Pac-12 crown are three straight road games, starting with Saturday's rivalry game against the Cougars in Pullman. The Huskies are a paltry 4-6 on the road this year, versus just two losses -- the embarrassing 92-73 drubbing at the hands of South Dakota State, and a narrow 69-66 loss to Cal, the team with which they now share first place --- in the friendly confines of Hec Ed.
When it comes to home and away, this team is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and never was the split personality more apparent than in Saturday's match-up against Arizona. The Huskies thumped the Wildcats 79-70 in what was easily their most inspired performance of the year. A team that had been consistently inconsistent finally realized their potential. They played aggressive defense, worked for high-percentage shots, and minimized turnovers -- all areas of weakness in previous weeks. It was, as Romar observed in his post-game press conference, the first time all season his team played 40 minutes of "Husky basketball."
The team's up-and-down play has drawn sharp criticism at times, especially given the Huskies' uncharacteristic inability to put the ball in the basket. Romar has shouldered most of the blame, as he rightly should. Observers who are both knowledgeable and passionate have described the Husky offense this year as both "chaotic incompetence," and a "clogged toilet," as in the ball circles around the rim and never gets flushed down the hole.
On the surface, it seems like this team should be a well-oiled scoring machine. Between Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, CJ Wilcox, and Aziz N'Diaye, there are likely four future NBA players on the roster, perhaps the most talent Romar has ever had at his disposal. But what has been widely overlooked is the fact that this particular group of Huskies lacks the depth and experience that have led other Romar teams to the promised land. This team was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 for a reason: they were raw and untested. And that was before their would-be senior leader, sharpshooter Scott Suggs, suffered a foot injury and opted to sit-out the entire year.
Take a step back and look at what Romar has accomplished this this group:
-He has coached Ross, once a talented but far too timid player, into a go-to scorer who finally isn't afraid to look for his own shot, as Saturday's brilliant 25-point performance proved.
-He has taught Tony Wroten, the ultimate individualist, to be a better defender and a team player. Rarely now does Wroten launch three-pointers, and force up contested shots early in the shot clock. (Admittedly, this is still a work in progress. Wroten is still "trick or treat Tony," to borrow a phrase from Bill Simmons.)
-He has whipped Shawn Kemp Jr. into shape after two years away from basketball, using walk-on football player Austin Seferian-Jenkins as a motivator, and instant energy guy off the bench.
-He has developed N'Diaye into one of the best low-post defenders in the Pac-12, and the team's second-best rebounder behind Ross. Unfortunately, N'Diaye's hands are seemingly chiseled from obsidian, and he will always struggle to catch passes and score.
-He has kept Darnell Gant around for four years, and convinced him to be a role-player and rebounder, rather than a three-point shooter and leading scorer.
-He has steadfastly supported Abdul Gaddy through a tumultuous and maddeningly mediocre career. Gaddy will never live up to the John Wall comparisons that accompanied his arrival at UW, but he scored 9 points and dished out 6 assists with no turnovers Saturday, proving himself to be the serviceable point guard and team leader Romar has repeatedly touted him to be.
If -- and this is an admittedly gigantic if -- the Huskies win three in a row and claim their second conference championship with Romar at the helm, it will be his greatest achievement at UW, and he should be named Pac-12 coach of the year. (The '02-'03 team currently ranks as Romar's best coaching performance, followed by the '08-'09 group, and the 09-10 team.) But if the Huskies fizzle and lose two or three games, don't listen to the reactionaries phoning talk radio shows to call for Romar's head. Without him, Husky hoops would still be irrelevant.