This was the season when the Washington Huskies were built to go further than they ended up going.
The Huskies returned three seniors in key roles. They had the ability to cluster five upperclassmen on the court. Adding to that was the raw potential of flashy freshman Terrence Ross, the introduction of redshirt freshman C.J. Wilcox and – the real game changer – 7-foot transfer Aziz N’Diaye.
When opponents packed in their defense, Washington had a stable of outside shooters including Ross, Wilcox and junior Scott Suggs.
When opponents moved out to pressure the 3-point arc, there was Matthew Bryan-Amaning to provide points in the paint, or Pacific-10 Conference player of the year candidate Isaiah Thomas to shoot, drive or dish.
Coach Lorenzo Romar’s ninth UW team seemed able to play offense and defense, fast or slow, big or small.
National media voted the Huskies No. 18 in The Associated Press preseason poll, and Pac-10 media voted them near-unanimous favorites for the conference title.
And that’s why the season that ended Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., will be remembered as a disappointment despite a résumé that in other seasons might have seemed like success: third place in the Pac-10, a conference tournament championship, an NCAA tournament bid, and a win in the Big Dance.
But Romar himself regularly says he judges his teams less on those kinds of accomplishments and more on how close they come to their potential. And minutes after North Carolina ended Washington’s season in the round of 32, he didn’t respond directly when asked how these Huskies did on that score.
“By the end of the year, I thought we had become a really good basketball team,” he said. “And even in (the final game), I think we did a lot of things that could lead you to victory. Just down the stretch we didn’t make the plays that were necessary.”
UW’s problem could be traced to the regular season, when the Huskies had been so inconsistent that they eventually were forced to play an Elite Eight-quality team – No. 2 seed North Carolina – too early in the tournament and too far from home.
Things might have been different had the Huskies pulled out a good-quality win over then-No. 8 Kentucky or then-No. 2 Michigan State in November.
Or if they had taken care of business against the likes of Stanford, Oregon State and Oregon in conference play.
But they didn’t, and their penalty was not only a dangerous No. 7 seeding, but also a cross-country flight into Tar Heel country.
“When we sat there Selection Sunday and saw the bracket, we would be fooling ourselves if we had not admitted that it was a tough, tough road to come this far – 2,800 miles – and play who we had to play,” Romar said. “We understood that, but I think immediately our guys embraced this opportunity as something that could be really special.”
The game that played out was a classic. And had it occurred in the Elite Eight, this season would have been celebrated.
But it came two games before that, and so – despite some successes – the season ends as a rare opportunity squandered.
Pick your problem. Maybe it was the season-ending injury to starting point guard Abdul Gaddy. Maybe the late-season distraction of Venoy Overton’s legal troubles.
But even at full-strength, the Huskies were too inconsistent to be all that was projected. Romar nailed it when he said this was a team that had to focus on focusing.
Instead of being able to impose their will with either an inside game or an outside game, this team often was forced to hope one or the other might be working. And during a crucial three-game losing streak at Washington State, OSU and Oregon, neither worked enough.
Looking ahead merely reinforces the missed opportunity, because the 2011-12 Huskies do not seem as complete.
Isaiah Thomas, assuming he returns for his senior season, again projects as a Pac-10 player of the year candidate. Gaddy should return healthy for his junior season. Forward Desmond Simmons will debut as a redshirt freshman. Another promising freshman class will arrive. And it’s easy to envision Ross or Suggs or Wilcox blooming into all-conference quality.
Senior-to-be Darnell Gant should pair with N’Diaye to provide tough interior defense and rebounding.
But the loss of Bryan-Amaning’s inside points and shot-blocking could once again force the Huskies to get by with shooting and speed: exactly the recipe that has proven problematic at tournament time.
And as freshman Ross wisely pointed out Sunday from the losing locker room, there’s no guarantee of future success.
“We had a great opportunity now,” he said. “That was one of the discussions with coach: We had a great opportunity today. You never know if you’ll get one next year.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org twitter/donruiztnt blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports