Oct. 24, 2003
SEATTLE - "The best thing about freshmen is that they eventually become sophomores."
Washington's Lorenzo Romar adopts that adage as he prepares for the second season as head coach at his alma mater. His inaugural UW campaign saw Romar endure growing pains along with six freshmen. Just one senior was listed on the roster that included only four upperclassmen.
The youth movement was so extensive that UW started four freshmen in the same lineup for what is believed to be the first time in school history. The quartet of rookies, along with then-sophomore Will Conroy, opened three Pac-10 games and won two of them.
This season's roster again features only one senior - guard Curtis Allen. The rest of the players possesses more experience as there is only one freshman and last season's six freshmen are now game-tested sophomores.
"We will still be young because we have only one senior, just like we did last year," Romar remarks. "We're still young, but more experienced."
Romar was hired in April of 2002 and charged with rejuvenating a Husky program that competed in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments as recently as 1998 and 1999. The Huskies have since sustained four straight losing seasons, including last year's 10-17 campaign. UW failed to qualify for the Pac-10 Tournament, finishing ninth in the regular-season standings with a 5-13 record.
The 2003 season was not without highlights for the Huskies who registered home victories over NCAA Tournament-bound Stanford and Oregon. They also finished with a winning non-conference record that included wins over solid Wyoming and Houston squads.
"We didn't win as many games last year as we would have liked and maybe we took our lumps," says Romar. "We would like to think as a result of taking our lumps last year, it's going to pay dividends this year because we will be more experienced.
The guard position boasts a cadre of capable players. Seven of the team's top eight scorers return, four of them guards. They include All-Pac-10 Freshman Team selection Nate Robinson (13.0 ppg). He and Will Conroy (12.7 ppg) ranked one-two last season among Husky point-producers. Allen, who averaged 9.7 points in 2003, is the only individual to play more than two seasons at UW.
The backcourt was bolstered at midseason last year by Brandon Roy who appears ticketed for stardom.
The forwards feature versatile and athletic sophomores Bobby Jones and Mike Jensen. Jones fills up a boxscore in every category while Jensen is capable of emerging as one of the Pac-10's premier power forwards.
"We try to put a skilled, quick team on the floor. That's what we like, those are the things we try to recruit, so that there is not anyone ever on the floor that can't pass, catch or shoot," Romar states. "You want guys to be able to do that. If you have that on the offensive end and not give up anything defensively you have a chance to win some games."
The success of the team may revolve around the play of the centers. Incumbent starter, sophomore Anthony Washington, seeks to return from a left foot injury that sidelined him for seven games last year. He was expected to be cleared to play sometime in August after undergoing off-season surgery.
"Anthony may be as excited as anyone to come back next year and play after playing just enough to get some experience and just as he was getting better he got hurt. He will have a good solid two months to get back into shape. Obviously Anthony is a big, big part of what we are trying to do because he and Hakeem Rollins are the closest thing we have to a low-post presence."
The Huskies sustained some personnel losses from last season's squad, none bigger than forward Doug Wrenn who declared for the NBA Draft following his junior season. A All-Pac-10 performer in 2002 with a 19.5-point average, Wrenn's scoring dipped to 12.4 last season.
"Doug was a guy who has played a lot of basketball games and he is accustomed to having that ball in his hands and making plays so we obviously have to replace him."
Also departing after last season was center Marlon Shelton who graduated after an injury-plagued career. Guards C.J. Massingale and David Hudson opted to transfer to other schools in search of increased playing time. Forward Jeffrey Day was dismissed from school and will likely enroll in a junior college.
Returning Lettermen (7)
Though short on experience, the returning players are long on talent. In total, 71 percent of the team's points (1392 of 1955) were registered by players who return this season. Also, the returning players represent 76 percent (279 of 366) of the Huskies' assist total from 2003.
Among players that saw action last year, only guards Allen and Conroy have played more than one full NCAA Division I season. Two prominent members of the team were not available at the beginning of last season.
"It will be great to have Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy with us from day one this year. Neither took part in the start of practice last year," Romar recalls. "Barring injuries, during the first week of practice we will have 14 or 15 guys out there as opposed to last year where we didn't have that. We'll just be more stable from the beginning this year as opposed to last year."
Allen is a quicksilver guard who is the team's primary 3-point threat. His 52 treys accounted for over one-third of UW's total. His career free throw percentage of 87.7 is currently the school's record.
"Curtis is our most experienced player. He has really worked hard in the off season and was voted one of our co-captains," Romar says. "We expect his senior year to be his best year."
Conroy increased his scoring average by more than any other Pac-10 competitor. Last season's 12.7-point average was over 10 points better than his freshman figure of 2.5. He led the team with 108 assists, an average of 4.0 per game that ranked fifth in the conference.
"Will surprised a lot of people. He was the most improved player in the conference last year. The same work ethic that allowed him to improve is the same work ethic that he had this summer and there is just no telling what he will bring next year."
Robinson burst onto the scene last year with a repertoire of tip-dunks and high-arcing shots that belie his his 5-8 stature. He joined the team after starting six games as a cornerback on the football team and proceeded to post a team-leading 13.0-point average. Robinson has hung up his helmet and will concentrate on basketball.
"This may sound crazy but he will be a much different player next year. He will know from day one exactly what we are trying to get across to him, offensively and defensively. There won't be any guess work, which will allow him to play better basketball."
The members of that talented trio have proven themselves as capable scorers. Now they need to showcase their playmaking prowess.
"Between Nate, Curtis and Will somebody has got to be able to run the team and give us that point guard presence," explains Romar. "Maybe it has to be done by committee but somebody's got to be able to do it. Will is one of those guys that we are going to look to and hopefully he can do it."
Jones is the consummate team player. From his forward position he excelled defensively while ranking second on the team in rebounds (4.1 rpg), fifth in steals (21) and fifth in assists (28). Jones started the season's final 15 games. He had a double-double against Arizona and hit the game-winning shot against USC.
"Bobby is probably going to be our most improved player next year. He has worked on his skills, his ball handling and his shot. He has gotten stronger and is going to step up next year. He will have a big year."
The team's finest inside-outside threat is Jensen, a powerful player with great athleticism. Jensen started 22 games at forward and shot 46 percent from 3-point range despite primarily competing inside the paint.
"Mike Jensen is going to be a great low-post scorer who will get to the foul line more next year. I also think he will be a better rebounder."
The ultra-athletic Roy is a sensational swingman who was declared eligible by the NCAA in January and show flashes of brilliance after getting acclimated. Roy tallied double-figure points in three of the season's final four games, averaging 13.8 points and 5.5 rebounds during that span.
"Brandon has a chance to be as good an offensive player as there is in this league. You just knew from day one that he had such a great feel for the game."
The lone returning non-letterman is sophomore Ben Devoe, a 6-11 center who could challenge for increased playing time after participating in six games last year.
"It took Ben an entire year to get himself in the type of condition that will allow him to now begin to improve as a basketball player. I would hope Ben would be in a situation where we could put him in a game situation and he could handle it. We are optimistic that he will be able to do that."
Newcomers (8) >
"We like to think our newcomers will come in and have an impact. Obviously Tre Simmons and Hakeem Rollins have had two years of junior college experience so I'm sure that they will be prepared to come in and contribute. We definitely need help on the front line and they should give us that."
Simmons could have a tremendous impact on the team that suffered through periodic scoring droughts last season. The 6-5 junior shattered scoring records last season at Green River (Wash.) Community College. He averaged 29.8 points per game and twice topped the 50-point plateau.
"Tre can really score. He is a guard that is good around the basket, but can also defend. He has quick feet and being 6-foot-5 he's got real good size. He can definitely create his own shot. Dereck Whittenburg once told me that, 'There are shooters and there are makers.' Tre is a maker."
Washington's need for more muscle inside was addressed with the addition of Rollins from Mesa (Ariz.) Junior College. The 6-7 banger should battle for playing time in the post.
"Hakeem is more of a low-post player that can also step out and shoot the basketball. But, he may be the strongest player on our team, physically. He is also a very good athlete at 6-foot-7 with really long arms. To add another post defender is something that really helps your team."
Hans Gasser led his Issaquah High School squad into the Washington state championship game almost single-handedly. A two-time league MVP, the 6-9 freshman averaged 21.1 points and 10 rebounds during his final prep campaign.
"Hans is a phenomenal shooter at 6-foot-9. He can really step out and shoot the basketball. But we don't want to limit him to just a shooter. He has got an offensive mindset. He has got a knack of finding a way to put the ball in the basket. He can also put the ball on the floor and get his shots. He can score points."
A third transfer is junior forward Jamaal Williams who will red-shirt this season with two seasons of eligibility left beginning in 2004-05. The 6-5 swingman averaged 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds last season at New Mexico under former UW assistant coach Ritchie McKay
"Jamal is an Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguire type. They are forwards that are rugged and can really put points up on the board. He is a good rebounder too, another guy that is 6-foot-5 with close to a 7-foot wingspan."
A quartet of walk-ons complete the class of eight newcomers. Freshman Brandon Burmeister is a brilliant outside shooter from Mercer Island (Wash.) High School. Another good shooter is junior Alex Johnson, a transfer from Bellevue Community College. Junior Matt Fletcher, who played last year at Ouachita Baptist, and sophomore Zane Potter add depth to the forward position.
Things have changed dramatically since Romar played at Washington. The legendary Marv Harshman no longer patrols the sidelines as he did when Romar was a player. Instead the Hall of Fame coach is frequently in the seats watching the action and willing to offer advice to his protege if requested.
The Pac-10 Conference is much different than during Romar's playing days. He served as an assistant coach on UCLA's 1995 national championship team, an event that helped signal a renaissance in Pac-10 basketball. During the last nine seasons the Pac-10 produced two national champions, five Final Four participants and 20 Sweet 16 qualifiers.
"This is one of the best conferences in the country and you just don't get a break," Romar said. "The Pac-10 from top-to-bottom will be upgraded this year. As a result we have to be upgraded, not only to finish higher than we finished last year but just to keep up with the league."
The most drastic change occurred inside Bank of America Arena at Edmundson Pavilion. The on-campus venue that Romar played in was renovated three years ago, transforming it from a vast field house into an intimate basketball-only facility that provides a distinct home-court advantage.
Despite the myriad changes, Romar still implements much of what Harshman instilled.
"We want to establish a winning mentality and everything that comes with that. We're making sure that guys are on time, making sure that our guys are doing things right and making sure that guys understand that's a priority for us."
Romar seeks to propel the Huskies into the postseason picture after a four-year absence. The key could well be improvement at the end of close games. Last season, UW took three NCAA Tournament-bound teams into overtime before losing. Nine of the Huskies' setbacks were by single-digit margins.
"We have to mature and win the close games that we didn't win last year. In order to do that we have got to rebound better, we've got to defend better, we've got to take care of the ball and take better shots."
Improved depth should correct some of last year's deficiencies.
"We have real competition at every spot. We should rarely have days where guys aren't working hard because they know if they are not working hard someone could pass them up right away. There are no positions locked in stone.
"We're excited about going into this season. We have a year under our belt as a team and we know each other much better. We've got a lot of familiar faces back while at the same time we have several new faces that we think are going to help."
Romar hopes that last year's players have grown from Boys to Men on the basketball floor. If so, unlike the singing group, it will not be "Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." Instead they will welcome a more successful future.