At times this season, it seemed as if Lorenzo Romar was aging in time-lapse photography.
Stress and fatigue showed on his face. His eyes took on a dark weariness. He sometimes coughed through interviews. And is it possible that more hair was falling out every week?
Maybe it would be more appropriate to suggest that this Washington men’s basketball season – with its challenges and emotional polarity – aged him in dog years.
The tangible rewards of this season can’t be totaled until later this week, or maybe even in weeks beyond that, but some of the big-picture developments can be weighed as Romar and the Huskies find themselves again headed off to the NCAA tournament for a Friday game against Georgia.
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Imagine his response if someone had told him in October he eventually would say this has been his most difficult season as a coach, but that the Huskies also would dramatically win another Pacific-10 Conference basketball tournament and earn the No. 7 seed in the East Region.
Along the way, they’ve gone through injury, inconsistency, and the public scrutiny of a star player’s unsavory legal issues. They played poorly on the road, poorly against zone defenses, and, at times, played without great emotion and with no consistent identity.
Yet here they are, rolling into the tournament with confidence and momentum.
Some call it Romar’s best job of coaching. It’s certainly been the most difficult.
It started with losing forward Tyreese Breshers to a medical condition, and then point guard Abdul Gaddy to a knee injury.
Romar had to shuffle his resources, shifting the role of star guard Isaiah Thomas from scorer to distributor. It amounted to asking him to evolve into a more complete player and team leader. He embraced the challenge and his assists doubled, while he still managed to average almost 17 points a game in the process.
But in January, Romar faced what was probably his greatest disappointment in nine seasons at UW when allegations arose against senior guard Venoy Overton. An investigation led to charges of providing alcohol to underage females, but allegations of other, uncharged activities, shook Romar and distracted the team.
When he called it his “toughest year,” Romar talked about his vision for the program, and the hurt and setback that results when “a guy makes a mistake” that threatens that vision.
After imposing some unreported in-house sanctions, Romar suspended Overton for the Pac-10 tournament, which ended being three games.
Although no one would think that Romar could handle this without heavy soul-searching, he was second-guessed all over the state.
Was the punishment proportional? Is Overton’s reinstatement now, for the NCAAs, a compassionate second chance that showed “family” loyalty and recognized the reality that young people make mistakes? Or was it insufficient punishment for Overton’s betrayal of Romar’s firmly stated “vision” for the program?
In many precincts, Romar’s decision was supported because of his track record on such matters, and the fact that in nine seasons, he has run a program untainted by so many of the unseemly distractions that beset many college programs.
With Overton out, Romar again asked more of Thomas, who responded with another Most Outstanding Player award in the tournament – he had to play all but two minutes in three games, and still had the strength and steel to net the tournament-winning basket in the title game’s final second.
Thomas collapsed afterward in exhaustion and the emotion of the moment. I’m surprised Romar didn’t just face-plant on the court alongside him.
But a subplot to Thomas in the tournament was the play of two youngsters.
As depth and inconsistency issues arose through the season, Romar could have been sorely tempted to lean heavily on a pair of talented freshmen – Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox.
But Romar mostly allowed them to mature and ripen into their roles, and when it came to tournament time, when they were called on for critical minutes and crucial shots, both were prepared to become key contributors.
The Huskies have been all over the place emotionally this season. They’ve been confounding to anyone trying to predict how they’ll play. They seem to fix problems and then have relapses.
Much has gone wrong, and it hasn’t been easy.
But Romar managed to get the most out of his star, to develop young talents, and keep his team focused enough that it is playing hard and well at the most important time of the season.
It’s enough to make a man age before your eyes.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org