Washington’s one season with Markelle Fultz looks destined to end in obscurity
The hardest thing to do at a Power 5 school is to lose consistently, to put together an extended run of underwhelming, disappointing seasons without having to find new employment.
Only three of the 65 head coaches employed at Power 5 schools have missed five straight NCAA tournaments at their current job. Two of those three are basketball coaches at football schools, Penn State’s Pat Chambers and Clemson’s Brad Brownell. Chambers has built enough recruiting momentum in Philly that the argument can be made that his program is trending up; at least that’s the pitch that earned him a sixth-year. Brownell made the tournament his first season with the Tigers, and with Jaron Blossomgame back this season and Elijah Thomas coming eligible in December, this group will be the best team he’s had since then.
The third member of that ignominious group isn’t like the others.
Both Chambers and Brownell have coached a single NBA player at their current gig - Tim Frazier and K.J. McDaniels, respectively - and neither of them were first round picks.
Washington’s Lorenzo Romar has had five first round picks in the last five years.
None of them have played in the NCAA tournament, and without a win over No. 8 Gonzaga on Wednesday night, there’s a very real chance that Markelle Fultz, the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will find himself watching the NCAA tournament on television as well.
As of today, Washington is 4-3 this season. They lost to Yale at home in their season-opener. They lost a pair of games to TCU - one on a neutral court, one on the road - and while the Horned Frogs are currently undefeated this season, they haven’t really landed a win that would let us know just how good they actually are.
After Wednesday, the Huskies won’t get another chance against a real team until Pac-12 play, and that could end up being a real problem.
A loss tonight puts them at 4-4 on the season and ensures that they will not have a quality non-conference win on their résumé, which wouldn’t be a huge issue if we could ensure that neither Yale nor TCU would eventually show up as a bad loss. But the other side of it is that the Pac-12 isn’t quite as loaded as we expected it to be. Oregon has fizzled out of the gate, failing to impress during non-conference play, while Arizona’s one relevant win - Michigan State - looks like it is anything but a marquee victory. UCLA is carrying the torch for the league.
Put another way, we’re looking at a situation where, for the second straight season, the best NBA prospect in college basketball will end up missing the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Ben Simmons-to-LSU experiment started slowly and ended as a train wreck, with the team opting not to accept a bid to the NIT.
How did this go so wrong?
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There are a couple reasons:
1. Washington just does not have the talent around Markelle Fultz that Romar needed, and it’s not entirely his fault. Marquese Chriss and DeJounte Murray, who both ended up being first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, were one-and-done players that no one expected to head to the NBA when they did. Chriss was a borderline top 50 recruit coming out of high school. Murray was closer to the top 30, but you’d be lying if you said you thought he was going to be able to leave school after one season with a guaranteed contract.
What’s left is a crop of players that are just OK. David Crisp is a fine player but isn’t necessarily a guy you want as your second option at the Pac-12 level. Malik Dime and Noah Dickerson are, at worst, serviceable high-major bigs. Matisse Thybulle hasn’t quite lived up to the hype that he had entering the season. Part of the reason that Romar is left with a roster bereft of high-level talent is a result of the way that he coaches.
Romar is going to play his most talented guys right away, said a person with knowledge of the way that Washington’s staff operates. It doesn’t matter if they are freshmen or seniors, he’s going to let his best players do what they can do. If that comes with a learning curve - Fultz isn’t going to get pulled for turnovers the same way that Chriss and Murray were allowed to play through their freshmen mistakes - then so be it. Compare that with a program like Wisconsin, where guys like Devin Harris and Frank Kaminsky, eventual top ten picks, were buried on the bench until they learned the system and earned the playing time. Even Bill Self has struggled with when to let his one-and-done stars play through their issues and when to hold them accountable.
Romar gives his talent a chance to showcase what they’re capable of, for better or worse. And, of late, it’s been the latter.
2. His teams don’t defend. “They were so ******* bad on defense. It was like they had never been coached,” a coach who has played the Huskies this season told NBCSports.com. “They had no plan.” The Huskies are entertaining to watch offensively because of how fast they play - they’re currently sixth in KenPom in tempo - but there isn’t much structure on that end and it comes at the expense of any kind of discipline on the defensive end.
That’s a by-product of giving his young guys freedom that they wouldn’t necessarily experience at other programs. It’s also a result of how he wants to play defensively. His best teams would get out and play a pressuring, half-court man-to-man defense, and with the new freedom of movement rules, that just doesn’t work. All Washington does is foul. They’ve been in the bottom 25% nationally in free throw rate the last two seasons. Chriss fouled out of 15 of the 34 games he played in college.
3. That environment isn’t necessarily the best for getting the most out of a guy like Fultz. For as talented as he is, Fultz still has some warts. He’s a slow-starter, a guy with a sleepy demeanor that has a habit of slowly growing into games. He’s a talented defender that doesn’t always play with the kind of effort on that end of the floor that he needs to. If he was from the west coast, he’d get criticized for having the same kind of “Cali-cool” that Lonzo Ball gets knocked for.
And it’s a shame, because Fultz really is an unbelievable talent.
But, at this point, it looks like he’ll be the unknown in this NBA Draft.
With the exception of Washington’s only game against Oregon and their second matchup with Arizona, every quality opponent that Washington plays will tip after 10:30 p.m. ET.
How many people are going to stay up that late to watch what could very well end up being a series of blowouts?
Lorenzo Romar is in a decidedly unique situation at Washington.
On the one hand, in the last five years, his teams have underperformed given the amount of talent that has come through Seattle. In 2011-2012, Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title but failed to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance with Terrence Ross, the No. 8 pick, and Tony Wroten, the No. 25 pick, on the roster. C.J. Wilcox, the No. 28 pick in the 2014 Draft, couldn’t get Washington into the dance either of the next two seasons, and this past year, Romar was NIT-bound despite having Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 pick, and DeJounte Murray, the No. 29 pick, on his roster. The only time in his Washington coaching tenure that he didn’t have a future first round pick on the roster was the 2014-15 season, and, in theory, that fact could change if current Gonzaga point guard and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss gets drafted.
In 15 years with the Huskies, Romar has reached the tournament just six times, the Sweet 16 just three times and finished with fewer than 10 losses just three times despite a nine-year run where U-Dub finished top three in the Pac-12 seven times and won two regular season titles.
But he’s also been by far the best coach in the history of the program. The Huskies reached the Final Four in 1953, and in the nearly 50 years between that day and the day that Romar was hired, Washington reached just six NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s.
Washington fans have a right to be frustrated with the way his tenure has gone, but that frustration stems from the fact that Romar carried Washington to an unprecedented level of success.
But that’s in the past. Brandon Roy’s college career ended a decade ago. Isaiah Thomas was drafted in 2011.
So while there’s an outside chance that both Fultz and Michael Porter Jr., the star that Romar has committed in the Class of 2017, could end up being the No. 1 pick in their respective NBA Drafts, it may be more likely that, without a win on Wednesday night, Romar may never end up coaching the latter.