Sat down yesterday for a wide-ranging interview with Huskies men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, who remains unflinchingly optimistic despite several recent transfers and the departure of respected assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger. He discussed Nigel Williams-Goss' decision to transfer, the search for a new assistant coach, and correcting the "slippage" within UW's culture. Here's a transcript of the 33-minute interview.
(It’s already been an eventful offseason for you guys, with Nigel Williams-Goss, Darin Johnson and Gilles Dierickx deciding to transfer. A lot of people probably figured that Williams-Goss would evaluate his NBA options, but his transfer seemed to take most by surprise. Did it surprise you, or did you see it coming at all?) “You know what, I kind of have taken a position over the last few years that – and it’s unfortunate, but I think this is the landscape of college basketball – in that at the end of the year, you’re going to sit back and evaluate who may or may not necessarily be on your roster, and it’s just very unpredictable. I’m sorry – it’s predictable that your roster may change. I think at this point, there’s already close to 400 transfers around the country, so I just think across the board, I think coaches understand that when the season ends, no roster is safe.”
(Seems like players usually transfer because they’re unhappy with their role on the team, but that’s not the case here …) “You look at all of the different transfers. There’s a kid from Drexel (Damion Lee, though Romar did not name him) that was I believe second in the nation (fifth, at 21.4 points per game) in scoring, and he’s transferring. Second in the nation in scoring. So it’s just different. It’s just a different age nowadays, so this isn’t a Washington issue or a Pac-12 issue, this is a national issue where this happens.”
(How much does it hurt to lose Williams-Goss?) “He was an all-conference player. He’s a good basketball player. Good basketball player. So, yeah, that’s not your first choice for that to happen. From the outside looking in, you could say doomsday. But I really wish we could talk two weeks from now, three weeks from now. I think you’ll see that our program is really headed in the right direction. And you would think I’m totally making that up or I’ve lost my mind if you don’t know what I know about our program right now. But I think for me, I’m really focusing on what I think is something that’s getting ready to be special. i see us really reestablishing our culture. I’ve been the first one to say, I’ve allowed some slippage with some things internally and that’s about to stop. Like I said, we had a culture here that I thought was pretty special, and the last couple of years, I don’t think it’s been at that level. So I’m not saying ‘we’re going to,’ we are, already, reestablishing our culture. And I think there are about to be some fun times within our program. And like I said, I think if we sat down and talked three weeks from now, a month from now, I think we could talk about some of those things. They just haven’t happened yet. I should say, some of them have happened.”
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(Is that a reference to potential recruits?) “I think some good things are about to happen here.”
(What do you think led to that cultural slippage?) “I think it all goes back to us, the infamous class of 2012-13, and it was all done in the name of trying to get our program to the next level, thinking that you really had an opportunity to really take it to the next level because you had these guys at your fingertips, you thought. Then when it didn’t work out, we had to make some other decisions and maybe a couple guys we took at the last minute because we took a risk. We took a couple of risks. I just think that led to some of that slippage. And when coaches say, ‘we’ve got a guy that can’t do this and can’t do that, and they don’t meet our expectations,’ well, who recruited them? Well, we did. We did. So that’s all on me. But in order to make things work, there was a little bit of slippage there. I want to make this clear, too. I believe there are excuses and there are explanations. To me, excuses are when something should have been done a certain way and it didn’t get done, and you’re not holding yourself accountable, so you make an excuse. An explanation is something that there was really a reason something happened that was beyond your control. And I don’t have any excuses. But I think there are a couple of explanations, and one was a little bit of the slippage, and the other is, there’s just no way in the world you expect what happened with our injuries the last couple of years.”
(Do you feel like the 10 scholarship players currently on your roster are totally on board that way?) “That’s why I have a smile on my face. There’s not any question. The guys that are here right now are on the same page. The guys that are coming in – four of the six guys coming in, I believe, either played in a championship or won a championship in the last couple years. They’re winners, and they’re totally committed to the University of Washington. Dejounte Murray, when we first offered him a scholarship and talked to him about coming to the University of Washington, he said it was like a dream come true. He’s always wanted to represent for his city. He said that. Matisse Thybulle, he said the same thing. David Crisp says, ‘this is something I’ve always wanted to do.’ Marquese Chriss, who is not from here, committed very early, said, ‘I don’t need to take another visit.’ He didn’t take another visit. ‘I really believe in this university.’ And there’s not a whole lot of talk amongst these guys about anything but putting Washington back on the map. Returning Washington to national prominence. That’s what these guys are all talking about.”
(They’re not bothered at all by all the recent transfers, or how last season went?) “They hear things, just (because) they’re part of our family now, what’s going on here. They hear those things. But they’re fired up. They kind of have a, ‘yeah, yeah, we’ve gone through that, but we’re about to help turn that around.’ That’s their attitude. And I can’t mention any names, but even the kids in 2016 that we’re recruiting, that we believe are going to come here, they’re saying the same things. They’re fired up. We have not only the few guys that are coming back this year, but the 2015 class is going to join us and now the 2016 class that I think will be pretty close – I’ll say a majority of it should be coming to a close, the majority of it in the next month or so. Those guys are all totally bought in. So when you have that type of optimism from the guys that are coming into your program and coming back, you’ve got reason to be excited about it. You’ve got Andrew Andrews about to be a fifth-year senior, and talking to him, he seems very, very excited about going into this year.”
(You mentioned Andrews – there was some speculation that he and Jernard Jarreau might look to transfer as fifth-year seniors. Was that a conversation you had with them?) “Like I said, every program, mostly every program, you’ve got to talk to your team. Since we’ve been here, I always have meetings with our guys at the end of the year, individually, and you talk about all those things. Talk about where you’re going to be in the summer – we’d like you to be here in the summer. Where you’re going to improve? Where are your grades? Now, where are you in terms of graduation? So we cover a multitude of things after each year, and I know those guys are ready to come back and do well.”
(Will everyone stick around for the summer, like last year?) “I think a good majority will be.”
(How is the assistant coaching search going?) “Still going. You want to make sure you find the right fit.”
(Are you concerned about T.J. Otzelberger leaving for another assistant coaching position? Obviously the circumstances at Iowa State might be a little different, but on paper it appears to be a lateral move.) “If you’re on the outside looking in, and you don’t know why, it could be. It’s not concerning to me at all. Yeah, at this point, it’s not. Again, if you’re on the outside looking in, and you don’t know – on the outside looking in, there’s a house that’s being demolished, and you’re saying, ‘wow, they don’t have a place to stay.’ But it’s only being demolished because they’re building a new house. So it’s actually good that that old one is being demolished. On the outside looking in, there’s certain things you see that might not look good, but then if you give it time, everything will unfold and you have a better understanding.”
(What kind of traits are you looking for in a new assistant?) “I don’t think there’s any question you’re always looking for someone who can recruit. I like having assistants that can do it all – good in practice, good with the scout, can recruit, and they have a base where they’re competent to do it all, but they obviously will excel in something, or in a couple of areas.”
(You don’t see a lot of coaches keep their job after missing the NCAA tournament four consecutive seasons, so the perception seems to be that if you don’t get there next year, your job might be in jeopardy. Do you feel that pressure? Is that how you look at it?) “I feel great support from our administration. I also feel like when you talk about those sort of things, you talk about not making the tournament for four years, I say we’ve been average for three years. We won our league and won 24 games four years ago. But the last three years, I would say we’ve been mediocre. When you talk about people not making the tournament for four years, I think the good majority of those end up 10-18, 10-20, 9-22. They have several situations where they’re like that. That hasn’t been the case here. And this hasn’t been, again, like I said, not an excuse but an explanation – the last couple of years, again, things have happened beyond our control. So maybe I’m biased because I work here. And then the other thing, if we had a situation where we don’t have anyone coming in right now, and the future, you just can’t predict what the future’s going to be like, those are all factors that I see that make me say, this is not the average situation of someone that has not been to the tournament in four years. And there are other situations where someone takes a job and they don’t have much success and they go four years without much success, and then there’s a change. That’s not been our situation. We’ve had success. We’ve hit a lull here, there’s no doubt, where we’ve had a few seasons of mediocrity. I do say that. But I am as excited right now as the day I took this job. And if anything, when I talk about the recruiting risks that we took before, that was not done because I, as a head coach, sat back and relaxed. It was done in the name of trying to get better and working even harder and taking it to the next level. It’s just the risks didn’t turn out the best. But it wasn’t due to a lack of effort. So you have a head coach and a staff here who are as fired up and as hungry as any point. Haven’t forgot how to coach, how to lead this program. And pieces are in place for us to reestablish our culture and experience not only the success we’ve had, but hopefully even more success.”
(What does the proper culture look like?) “I think two things – guys do the right thing. guys, they do what’s asked of them. That would be No. 2. I think No. 1 is, regardless of what your personal goals are, regardless, you sacrifice that for the betterment of the team and the betterment of the program. There’s not a whole lot that’s changed in terms of a guy coming in and saying, ‘I want to go to the NBA as soon as I can,’ or ‘I want to come in and I want to start as a freshman, I want to be player of the year as a freshman.’ Kids want to do that all the time. When we have been successful, guys have wanted all those things, but they have sacrificed those so that we can be the best we can be. And that’s the type of culture that we’ve had when we were successful.
“I remember Jon Brockman – and I’ve told this story before – we don’t make the tournament in 2007. We don’t make the tournament in 2008. And the summer, I talked to Jon, I said, ‘Jon, you led us in scoring this year. You averaged over 17 a game. Next year, for us to be the best team we can be, you may need to average less.’ I said, ‘We have Isaiah Thomas coming in next year, and even as a freshman, he’s going to be able to score. So it may not be a situation where we’re going to you as much, but I think we’ll be a better team, because we’ll be more balanced.’ He says, ‘Coach, you know me. Whatever it takes to be as good as we can be, I’m all in it.’ And that year, we won the league, first time in 53 years. Jon wanted his personal goals. He wanted all of that. But he wasn’t going to put that ahead of the team, and he knew that if he didn’t put it ahead of the team, yeah, we would do well and everything would be accomplished anyway. And I can name you several incidents of guys that were very good and had personal goals, and they sacrificed those for the team. You go back and look at minutes played, all of our tournament teams, you look at minutes played, and you’ll see maybe one guy averaged 32 minutes, one guy averaged 33. Nate Robinson one year averaged 26 minutes a game. Isaiah Thomas, 28 minutes a game. Those guys were really good. Brandon Roy, for a time, came off the bench. That’s when our culture was at its best.”
(Can Washington sustain success without a strong infusion of local prep talent?) “When you talk about – there are a number of programs that have been to Final Fours, have won national championships, that have established tradition for one reason or another, and those situations sometimes, they don’t have the local talent in their backyard. But because of the tradition that they’ve established, they can still go out around the country and sometimes pick whoever they want. The University of Washington has had good years, but I think we’ve been to one Final Four. And just like kids from here don’t grow up wanting to play for Pitt or West Virginia, and those programs have been really successful. Really successful. But they don’t know about them there. Around the country, there are a lot of cases where kids are just not familiar with what’s gone on at the University of Washington. They get a better picture, but maybe not enough to get them over the hump to fly across the country and come to school here. So it is very important when you do get those that are familiar with the University of Washington, that you’re able to convince them to come play. And especially, not just familiar with it, but totally bleed purple and gold. When that happens, those kids are going to, in the down times, hang on with you and stick with you and push for you. They go back out into the community and say what a great experience they’re having, if that is in fact the case. So when the talent is local and we’re able to get the talent to come here, I definitely think that’s a positive for your program. And I believe during those years we talked about, there were a few years where the talent wasn’t as widespread as it’s been there.”
(It sounds like you’re trying to add to it, but do you feel that your roster, as currently constructed, is an improvement over last season?) “I feel strongly with that, yes. I feel strongly that way. I don’t know if people realize what Andrew Andrews did this year. Andrew became a heck of a player for us. And him and Jernard – Andrew has the ball in his hand more – but him and Jernard have an opportunity to lead some younger players and kind of show them the way, and the younger players have a learning curve, but they are talented.”
(The only other time you’ve had to rely on this many freshmen was in 2007. Is this a different challenge?) “I also think it’s maybe a different makeup, as well. And again, I know during that time, we were still trying to establish ourselves in the backcourt. I think again, with Andrew, that (’07) group did not have a senior leader as a backcourt player. This group has a senior leader as a backcourt player, as a point guard. I think that makes a difference. I think that ’07 team, if they would have had a senior or an older guy at that point running the team, they would have done better.
“I think the freshmen – Spencer (Hawes) was ready to go – but I think the freshmen in this class are a little closer to being ready to go early, and I think that makes a difference.”
(Do you think you’ll get a more comprehensive buy-in of your defensive philosophies?) “Oh, they’ll buy in. This group has already bought in. ‘Coach, what do you want us to do?’ Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be a stellar defensive team, Day 1. But these guys are going to work. They’re going to get after it.”
(Will you be a better shooting team?) “Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question. David Crisp right now, he can really shoot the basketball. I’d say Dejounte probably is a little bit more streaky, but he can shoot the ball. Matisse Thybulle, he had games where he hit five, six 3s last year. And then Andrew is coming back, he’s shooting the ball well from 3. We saw Donaven Dorsey was successful early in the year from 3. I’m sure in his sophomore year now, with a year under his belt, he’ll regain that 3-point shot that he had. So yeah, I do think we’re a better shooting team.”
(What about Quevyn Winters, coming off a tough season where he didn’t shoot very well?) “Yeah, you know, this will be Quevyn’s second year here, and sometimes it takes JUCO guys a little longer, especially at guard. The bigs sometimes get it done quicker but sometimes it takes the guards a little longer. So we know Quevyn’s ability to shoot the ball, coming in here, his reputation. There were a few times he knocked it down, he just wasn’t consistent. But yeah, we would anticipate him being a better shooter.”
(Sounds like the athletic department wants to offer students the opportunity to buy football and basketball tickets together. Do you think that will help attendance? Or do you guys just have to win for people to come out?) “Time will tell. I know for me, that’s going to be a priority, to try to get our students back on more of a consistent basis. There were a few games they came out and they were stellar. I think it affects the entire arena when those students are there. But that is going to be very important, that we get them out there this year, because we know what it’s like when they’re there for us, supporting us.”
(Thoughts on this year’s NCAA tournament and Final Four?) “Maybe one of the best Final Fours and Elite Eights. From the Elite Eight on, this is one of the situations where you didn’t hear a whole lot of complaining about selections. There were a couple of people who got snubbed, but I can’t remember it being this quiet in recent years. And I thought it showed during the Final Four. Michigan State’s game with Duke, that got away from Michigan State. But I thought it was a very competitive Elite Eight and Final Four.”