SEATTLE — Lorenzo Romar worried?
Nah, he’s not the type. For 11 years, he has been the Commissioner of Cool while coaching the Washington men’s basketball team, and until recently, the results have been indisputably positive. Revolutionary, even. So even though preseason expectations have the Huskies missing the NCAA tournament for a third straight year — which would be the first such lull in the Romar era — don’t assume Romar is feeling any heat.
Don’t mistake his calm for complacency, either. He wants to return the program to form more than anyone. In a recent interview with Seattle Times reporter Percy Allen, he said of the current two-year tournament drought, “I can’t stand it.” But as preparations for the 2013-14 season have begun, Romar isn’t panicking because he believes he has made enough adjustments — some subtle, some obvious — to ensure the Huskies avoid a freefall.
“We’re anxious to get back and get that sour taste out of our mouths from last year,” the coach said.
In this microwave society, it doesn’t take long to lose perspective. When the winter comes, Romar will have as much to prove as anyone locally because momentum is so fickle. He made the NCAA tournament six times in his first nine seasons at Washington and reached the Sweet 16 three times.
But the past two years have been rough. Despite having two first-round NBA draft picks (Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten Jr.) in 2011-12, the Huskies failed to make it to the Big Dance, even though they won the Pac-12 regular-season title. And a year ago, the Huskies finished way off their standard, posting an 18-16 record and losing to Brigham Young in the NIT first round.
Romar can’t afford another season like 2012-13. It’s not really about his job security. All indications are that Washington will be patient with the coach because he has accomplished so much in making the Huskies a nationally respected program. If he lumbered through another long season, Romar would be fine for this year and face the hot seat entering 2014-15.
So, he’s not concerned with criticism and mounting public frustration. He just wants to win again.
“That’s definitely important, getting back to the NCAA tournament,” Romar said after the Huskies’ annual media day. “I see it more as important for what we’re building, getting back to it as opposed to wondering, ‘What if you don’t?’
“I’m not living in fear of ‘What if you don’t?’ We’ve been successful. We can get it back to where we had it.”
Ask Romar if he did any soul-searching after last season, and he’ll say the soul-searching actually began the year before, when the Huskies missed the Big Dance despite winning the Pac-12. That aberration led him to re-evaluate a lot within the program. Struggles the past season led to a continuation of those evaluations.
The Huskies are different now, for sure. They’re in their second season running the high-post offense. The coaching staff is dramatically different after years of limited turnover. Raphael Chillious is back. T.J. Otzelberger is new. Brad Jackson is entering his second year. And now, strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro brings NBA experience to the mix. Lance LaVetter, the director of basketball operations, is the only longtime Romar assistant who remains.
Romar is also making a subtle shift in the program’s recruiting philosophy. After some high-profile misses in trying to sign blue-chippers such as Terrence Jones and Aaron Gordon, the Huskies will place more importance on ensuring that they don’t become so obsessed with the big fish that they miss out on quality players they could’ve signed. They won’t chase the superstars so much that they hinder their chances to get other good players they like.
Ultimately, Romar is remembering who the Huskies are and how they built the program. When things were going well, there was still much consternation about getting to the next level. Part of reaching another level is being consistent. Romar realizes he doesn’t need to reinvent the program as much as he needs to keep it fresh. The identity can remain the same. When the Huskies return to form, Romar will seek to polish, not renovate.
It’s the right philosophy. The Huskies never needed to do things differently, just better. Their up-tempo, high-energy style is what makes the program special and attractive to top-tier athletes. Sometimes, you can get to the next level by staying on the same level long enough to capitalize on a transformative opportunity.
As great as the Romar era has been overall, the Huskies have been burdened by some fits and starts. Eliminate those, and Romar will have the program he wants.
“We were 18-16 last year and did not make the NCAA tournament,” Romar said. “We start with that motivation.”
Can Romar avoid missing the NCAA tournament three straight times? He’s not thinking about the cumulative trauma. He’s only concerned about now.
The coach cherishes a fresh start. And he embraces some old tricks.