Washington hopes renewed focus can help it put the stigma of last season in the past
SEATTLE – For all the firsts Lorenzo Romar has experienced in his decade-plus tenure at Washington, this was one he didn't want his program associated with.
Last March, after the Huskies captured the Pac-12 Conference regular season title, Washington flamed out in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and left its postseason fate in the hands of the NCAA tournament committee. When the Huskies were bypassed for the NCAAs and forced to accept an NIT bid as a consolation prize, they became the first regular season champion of one of the six power conferences to not get an NCAA bid
Embarrassing as it was hearing that fact repeated constantly, it's now become motivation for the Huskies entering a new season rife with questions about how they will go about replacing two first-round picks in the NBA draft.
"I don't feel like we have this mentality that we have to prove the world wrong," Washington forward Desmond Simmons said. "We do play with a chip on our shoulder, we all have a chip on our shoulder about the fact that we only went to the NIT last year."
For the last four years, Washington has claimed either a regular season of conference tournament crown. It's the longest run of success at the top of the Pac-12 in Washington's hoops history.
Yet staying there for the 2012-13 season will be difficult. There are questions about scoring with the loss of Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the NBA, front-court play and defense. Proven depth off the bench is also an issue and there have been changes in Romar's coaching staff.
It's the first time since the early years of Romar's return to his alma mater that Washington has not been expected to be a conference title contender. In some regards, the Huskies like it that way.
"We've got the underdog mentality and the fact we're going to have to come out here and work hard every day and we're going to have to try and grind out games and prove to everyone we're not fifth or sixth. We're trying to be the best," guard Abdul Gaddy said.
In many ways, Gaddy will end up being the tone setter for Washington.
On the defensive end, his ability to improve defending the perimeter will be a key considering that aspect of Washington's defense was a problem a year ago. Offensively, Gaddy will be at the head of the Huskies' new high-post offense, moving away from the motion system Romar used since the mid-2000s when Washington thrived on its athleticism.
Romar said the move to the high-post was based off personnel now and for the future. It's the system he was taught coaching on Jim Harrick's staff at UCLA and he saw the Bruins win a national title in 1995. It's proven to work, but will take time for the Huskies to master.
"Sometimes when you change your offense or change certain things you want to do within your team, guys fight it," Romar said. "Our guys have embraced it. I think that's a really important piece in this whole thing."
Two of the biggest beneficiaries of the new offense will be shooters C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs. Wilcox is Washington's top returning scorer after averaging 14.2 points last season, while Suggs returns after redshirting last season due to a foot injury. Because of how the new offense functions, the duo won't need to create their own shots as much, but should have open looks based off the system.
"There are not a lot of positions to break down one on one like there were last year," Wilcox said. "It's more reading off of screens, what the defense does and finding open slots and the open man."
Aziz N'Diaye and Simmons are the only proven players in Washington's frontcourt. N'Diaye's strength is at the defensive end, but adding additional offensive production could be important for the Huskies' success. The same could be said of Simmons: defense, a strength; offense, a question.
Behind those two lurk Washington's biggest depth questions. Shawn Kemp Jr., Martin Breunig and Jernard Jarreau will all be counted on in the Huskies frontcourt. Kemp and Breunig played significant minutes last year, while Jarreau redshirted while adding weight to his lanky 6-foot-10 frame.
If Washington can answer those questions and navigate a strong non-conference schedule, they could erase the bitter memories of last season.
"It left a big chip in the fact that's one of the big reasons you come to college. You want to play in the NCAA tournament," Gaddy said. "That's one of the perks of playing college basketball. You get to play in the NCAA tournament, where you get to have all those people come watch you. It's just a great moment you get to live. Us not being able to live in that moment made us upset."