(This blog typically deals with happenings around Gonzaga basketball, but it will occasionally address the nearby programs and college hoops in general.)
On New Year’s evening, the Huskies started Pac-12 play with a home loss to Washington State, punctuated by the usual heroics from freshman guard Markelle Fultz, plus a lot of vacant looks by the other guys on the floor. Three nights later, 15th-ranked Oregon came to town, and the Ducks won by 22, pretty much treating Washington like a cat batting around a dead mouse.
So by now, we know this: For the Husky men, it’s not a question of whether, but how bad. Any real chance of making something of this season is close to having disappeared, and now it’s more an issue of just how far this will sink. After Washington got clocked by Gonzaga four weeks ago, Romar said he was looking forward to seven straight games in Seattle. Ahead of a visit from Oregon State, those first six have produced a 3-3 record and victories over Western Michigan, Cal Poly and Seattle U., significant only in the fact the Huskies didn’t lose to them.
Washington’s record is 7-7 now, and besides the aforementioned three, the wins are against Long Beach State, Western Kentucky, Cal State-Fullerton and Northern Arizona. A reading early this week of the RPI computer rankings of the seven brings us to an average of 271, which means none of the seven is faintly relevant.
It’s gotten so bad that the Wednesday Seattle Times noted that Washington had failed to make the NCAA tournament six straight years. Actually, it’s only five, but by now, who’s counting?
“Lorenzo’s got pocket aces,” crowed a morning talk-show host.
Of course he does. Romar has signed forward Michael Porter Jr., ranked by some the nation’s second-best high school recruit, the centerpiece of a top-five class. And his brother Jontay, a year younger, is committed to Washington.
They’re playing at Nathan Hale High School, where the coach, in his first job, is former Washington great Brandon Roy.
Speaking of first year, a month before Roy was named at Nathan Hale, Romar added Michael Porter Sr. to his staff. In a revealing December piece, Christian Caple of the Tacoma News-Tribune laid out the circumstances of that hire.
Romar and the senior Porter have a long association, dating to when they played together for Athletes in Action a generation ago. And Romar is godfather to Michael Porter Jr.
From there, it grows murkier. Porter Sr.’s coaching background is rooted in AAU circles, then to three years’ each as Missouri women’s basketball operations director and assistant with the Mizzou women, whose roster included two of his daughters. There had been no experience with college men before Washington.
For this, according to Caple’s story, the Huskies decided on a two-year contract for Porter Sr. worth $300,000 a year, plus a $5,000 monthly housing allowance and another $15,000 annually for family travel. Raphael Chillious, Romar’s top assistant, makes $203,016. The other assistant, Will Conroy, makes $144,000.
The Huskies had thought enough of Chillious to bring him back to the UW for a second run after a stint at Villanova. And last April, they announced a promotion of Chillious to the title of associate head coach. That came a month before they made public the hire of Porter Sr., which was a month before the announcement of Roy as coach at Nathan Hale. And in July, Michael Porter Jr. announced he would attend Washington.
In Caple’s story, both Romar and UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen lament some tight finances at the UW as cramping the salary pool for all the assistants, and they cite another unnamed major-conference program as having been desirous of Porter Sr.’s services.
So the solution was to pay Porter Sr. 48 percent more than the top assistant on the staff, ostensibly because of his experience with the Missouri women’s program. Apparently, Geno Auriemma wasn’t available.
The head spins.
We’ll insert here the disclaimer of every treatise on Romar. He has always been a good and honorable man. And there’s nothing known about the saga of the Porters that would violate NCAA rules.
But in the Huskies’ confounding backslide since 2011, Romar has accomplished a jaw-dropping double. Twice, he has had teams that sent two first-round draft choices to the NBA that year and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
Last year, that edition of the Huskies also included the Pac-12’s leading scorer -- a third player, Andrew Andrews -- and still it didn’t happen, a non-feat of majestic magnitude. It came in a Pac-12 Conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, which means (a) the games were consistently challenging, and (b) there was opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to build a resume.
All of this leaves some Husky fans behaving like a classic drug addict. Just one more fix. Just one more. Just give us one more recruiting class, and everything will be all right. Just as it was going to be all right when Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss entered school in 2015. Just as it was going to be all right when Fultz enrolled for this year.
So far, what Fultz has brought is breathtaking ability, surrounded by a bunch of guys who don’t play defense and don’t seem to fit particularly well. The sum is less than the parts, which means Fultz, if he goes No. 1 in the 2017 NBA draft, is Ben Simmons 2.0, minus the dissension.
Here’s a suggestion, then, for Jennifer Cohen: Forget that Husky basketball has signed anybody for next year. Pretend that the recruiting rankings don’t exist.
The Huskies have 17 games left. Evaluate Romar not on the basis of Michael Porter Jr., but on the development of this team -- you know, the one that actually plays and practices at Alaska Airlines Arena, the one with three four-star recruits around Fultz. By March, make a reading on whether they’re getting better, and growing more cohesive, and defending more competently, and playing like they care.
Because what Lorenzo Romar has shown he’s really good at, in the enigmatic recent years of his coaching career, is getting guys to the NBA. Cohen is going to have to decide whether, in the big picture of Husky basketball, that should be the endgame.