There are eight of them. Seven true freshmen, one junior college transfer. Four played high school ball in the state of Washington. Five are considered among the top 100 prospects in their entire recruiting class. Two signed with other schools first.
And each of them ultimately chose to play basketball for the Washington Huskies despite the program’s four-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, despite a spate of offseason defections that included the team’s leading scorer, and despite offers from other programs that have enjoyed far more on-court success in recent years.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, whose 14th season at UW will begin Friday with a 7 p.m. PT tipoff against Texas in Shanghai, China, has answered this question so many times. Yet it is still worth asking.
How did the Huskies, on the heels of a 2014-15 season that yielded a 16-15 final record and a 5-13 mark in Pac-12 play, just assemble perhaps the deepest, most athletic, most talented recruiting class in school history?
Brown paper bags full of cash? Gold, Pontiac Trans-Ams? Fruit baskets?
Probably not. The truth, likely, is that multiple factors combined to help restock UW’s roster with the kind of long-armed, high-leaping players Romar has always desired.
And it started at home.
A local foundation
Romar makes clear that assistant coaches Raphael Chillious, Brad Jackson and T.J. Otzelberger (who has since departed for Iowa State, and was replaced by Will Conroy, whose local ties are expected to pay dividends in the near future) deserve considerable credit for assembling this class. But UW always has thrived most under Romar when its star players are from the area — think Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Isaiah Thomas, Jon Brockman — and that is a theme of this year’s class, too.
Dejounte Murray is a versatile, 6-foot-4 shooting guard from prep powerhouse Rainier Beach who could have played for nearly any college he wanted. David Crisp, who played at Clover Park and Rainier Beach before spending last season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, is a 6-foot guard with a smooth, left-handed shooting stroke. Matisse Thybulle, a 6-foot-5 guard out of Eastside Catholic in Sammamish, might be the team’s best athlete — he boasts a 40-inch vertical leap and can run a mile in less than five minutes. And 6-foot-6 guard Dominic Green, a late addition, set Hazen High School’s career scoring record.
Chillious said that at first he thought Murray’s talent would make him a difficult recruit to land. And he worried that with Crisp attending prep school on the East Coast, it might lead to enticing offers from bigger programs in that region.
But the local kids wanted to be Huskies, and that was that. The day he signed his letter of intent — nearly a year ago now — Murray stood in Rainier Beach’s gym and proclaimed his desire to “bring Washington back to where it used to be.”
“Since I’ve lived in Seattle, it’s just been Husky basketball,” Thybulle said. “Sitting in the stands, watching those guys and always dreaming of being one of them, and now having my own jersey with my last name and my number on it, it’s unreal.”
An early start
If Marquese Chriss had waited a few months, Romar believes that he would have been inundated with offers from college basketball’s most storied programs.
But two days after the springy, 6-foot-9 dunk machine from Sacramento, California, took an official visit to UW in January 2014 — nearly 10 months before he could sign a binding national letter of intent — he surprised even himself by calling Romar with the news that he wanted to be a Husky. He was the second player in the class to commit; Crisp announced his decision a day earlier.
Chriss already had a few offers — USC and Vanderbilt earned serious consideration — but saw everything he needed to see at UW, including the school’s renowned engineering program.
The early visit, Romar and Chillious agree, was essential.
“We really felt if we didn’t do that,” Chillious said, “going into April, there would have been a whole bunch of different people we’d have to fight to be able to get him.”
The same philosophy applies to another recruit whom the Huskies can’t yet discuss: Markelle Fultz, the five-star point guard from powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, who committed to UW in mid-August and can sign a letter of intent as early as Wednesday (UW is expected to officially announce his signing later this week). A high school senior, Fultz will join the Huskies for the 2016-17 season. UW also has signed New Zealand center Sam Timmins in that class.
Fultz had offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Arizona and other schools with comparable pedigrees. Recruiting services rank him among the top 20 prospects in the 2016 class. So how did the Huskies get him to commit to a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and is located on the opposite side of the country?
Again, they were on him early. Fultz’s trainer, Keith Williams, is an old friend of Chillious, and that relationship helped forge the initial connection between Fultz and the UW coaching staff.
UW wasn’t the first school to offer Fultz a scholarship — Fultz’s mother, Ebony, said her son received his first offer around July 2014, and the Huskies offered him that September — but they were still ahead of the pack.
“Them showing up to every AAU game I had showed how really badly they wanted me,” Fultz said, “and I think that made a difference.”
That’s partially because Fultz played on DeMatha’s junior varsity as a sophomore in 2013-14, and wasn’t yet considered a superstar prospect.
In a way, that’s how the Huskies want to operate. It’s not that UW doesn’t recruit players who are already highly ranked. It does. But Romar’s philosophy has shifted to emphasize early identification of players who will develop into coveted recruits, and those are the players the Huskies want to court early.
“We analyzed the players we’ve had in this program since Lorenzo’s been here all the way through,” Chillious said, speaking in general terms, “and really said, you know what? When we recruited him, he wasn’t a five-star. He wasn’t a four-star. He was a three-star that we thought, if everything turns out the way we think it’s going to, he’s going to be a five-star and all the coaches who are recruiting the five-stars are going to miss him. And this player, when he walks out the door, is going to be a better basketball player than the five-star they got.”
“Two late gifts”
The Huskies thought their 2015 class was complete when two big men, Devenir Duruisseau and junior-college transfer Malik Dime, each committed on Oct. 20, 2014. Both players are expected to contribute immediately.
But UW was able to add another high-profile forward when hustle intersected with a little luck.
Chillious heard that Noah Dickerson, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Montverde Academy in Florida, was in town for the Tony Wroten Skills Academy in August 2014. So he got Dickerson’s phone number and cold-called him.
“Since you’re in town,” Chillious told him, “why don’t you come over and do an unofficial (visit) at the University of Washington?
Funny, Dickerson replied, because his mom and twin brother — a prospective college student, but not an athlete — had visited UW about a week before.
Dickerson took Chillious up on his offer to visit. Chillious showed him around campus, introduced him to Romar, so on and so forth. But Chillious knew he had jumped in late, so he wasn’t surprised when Dickerson called him later to tell him he was going to Florida, which had been recruiting him for far longer.
No big deal, Chillious thought, and he told Dickerson: “Just know we’re here if anything changes.”
Dickerson signed a binding letter of intent with Florida in November 2014. But when Florida coach Billy Donovan left in late April of this year to take the head coaching job with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dickerson requested and was granted a release from his letter. He soon arranged an official visit to Washington, and must have enjoyed it, because he committed to the Huskies the next day.
That was June 4. About six weeks prior, another head coaching change — Herb Sendek’s firing at Arizona State — precipitated the commitment of Hazen High School star Dominic Green to the Huskies.
Like Dickerson, Green had signed a letter of intent before seeking a release following a coaching change. And also like Dickerson, Green was on UW’s radar during his initial recruiting process. Once he was granted his release, the Huskies pounced, and Green didn’t need long to decide he wanted to play for them.
“Sometimes you get a gift,” Chillious said. “And we happened to get two late gifts that obviously are going to end up being big pieces to where we are moving forward.”
The last time the Huskies brought in a top-10 recruiting class — the 2006-07 season — it quickly fell apart. Star center Spencer Hawes left after one season for the NBA. Adrian Oliver transferred. So did Phil Nelson. Only Quincy Pondexter stuck around for four seasons, the first two of which ended without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Whether this 2015-2016 team can qualify for UW’s first tourney bid since 2011 will be determined by how quickly they learn to play together — particularly on defense — and how quickly they capitalize on their perceived potential. An exhibition game last week against Seattle Pacific showcased their skill, but exposed a certain amount of sloppiness and youthful mistakes. As talented as these young Huskies might be, it isn’t easy to manufacture experience — and with just two returning rotation players on the roster, that’s something the Huskies don’t have.
But what they do have, for the first time in a few years, is a group capable of executing Romar’s up-tempo principles on both ends of the floor. They’ll force a relentlessly aggressive pace on offense. They’ll contest passing lanes and aim for steals on defense.
The preseason Pac-12 media poll pegged the Huskies to finish 11th in the conference standings. Romar offers no prediction as to how many games this group might win, or how likely it is to play meaningful games in March.
“We have some fun pieces in place to coach, I know that,” he said. “And probably the most exciting thing to me is we now have the personnel to go back to playing the way we want to play. And then everything else takes care of itself.”
HUSKIES’ 2015-16 SCHEDULE
vs. Texas in Shanghai
Mount St. Mary’s
Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in Nassau, Bahamas
To be determined
To be determined
UC Santa Barbara
at Washington St.
at Arizona St.
at Oregon St.
Pac-12 Tournament at Las Vegas
To be determined
UW MEN’S BASKETBALL ROSTER
Hometown / Previous School / High School
Sacramento, Calif. / Pleasant Grove
Tacoma / Brewster Academy (N.H.)
Issaquah / Eastside Catholic
Seattle / Rainier Beach
Dakar, Senegal / Indian Hills CC
Seattle / Roosevelt
Portland / Benson Tech
Manhattan Beach, Calif. / Rolling Hills Prep
Atlanta / Montverde Academy (Fla.)
Mill Creek / Jackson
Renton / Hazen
Mountlake Terrace / Mountlake Terrace
Palmdale, Calif. / Fishburne Military Academy
Auburn / Notre Dame Prep
Lacey / Timberline