Going past the Sweet 16 is a difficult step
Washington ran into that callous Sweet 16 wall again. In your frustration, after experiencing three Huskies losses in this round the past six seasons, you might wonder if it's a ceiling.
Seattle Times staff columnist
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — At the end, it felt like a Bittersweet 16.
You will always appreciate what the 2009-10 Washington Huskies did, how they climbed out of the gutter and ended up smelling like roses. They turned an underachiever's label into a battle cry, won over their critics and finished with a spirited flurry.
They reminded you of what this program can be, or rather what it has undoubtedly become. They got your hopes up. But then they ran into that callous Sweet 16 wall again. In your frustration, after experiencing three Huskies losses in this round the past six seasons, you might wonder if it's a ceiling.
When will the Huskies break through this barrier? It's a question coach Lorenzo Romar didn't run from Thursday night, even amid his postgame disappointment.
His answer was appropriately measured. Wait, he said. This is still a growing program. The Huskies will get there.
"That's just the next step," he said. "We have to get past this. And we'll work hard to try to."
But patience is in short supply this time of year. Worst part of the NCAA tournament? The round after your team gets eliminated.
The fun continued here Saturday in the Elite Eight. March Madness reached a truly insane level, and a Final Four bid was awarded in the East Region. No Washington, no matter. Your broken heart can receive no medical care here.
When will the Huskies break through this barrier? It's a question that is easy to raise, easy to answer and difficult to forecast when it will occur.
Under Romar, Washington has developed into a program built on superior guard play and an up-tempo style. In general, the Huskies have been at their best when they've been small and feisty. But they won't be special until their best teams include a dominant big man. The season-ending loss to West Virginia, in which Washington fired errant jumpers and got outrebounded by 20, served as a reminder.
They had such a talent in Jon Brockman from 2005 to 2009, but he was only a freshman on the 2006 Sweet 16 team. During his sophomore and junior seasons, the Huskies endured transition years. They won the Pac-10 in his senior year, but the Huskies, a youngish team even with Brockman and Justin Dentmon leading them, lost to Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
You're still waiting for the Huskies to hit the jackpot of experience: dynamic perimeter play and a forceful big man who makes the game easier. Perhaps DeMarcus Cousins could've been that guy for them this season, but he was never as interested in Washington as he let on and signed with Kentucky. Perhaps Charles Garcia could've been that guy, but he didn't meet academic standards and became a star at Seattle University instead.
Perhaps Kentwood center Joshua Smith could've been that guy for them next season, but he signed with UCLA. Perhaps Spencer Hawes could've been that guy for them at some point the past four seasons, but he left UW for the NBA after his freshman year in 2007. Perhaps Terrence Jones, a versatile 6-foot-9 forward from Portland, will be that guy for them in the future, but the Huskies must beat out the likes of Kentucky and UCLA to get him.
You never know what recruiting will yield. It's another reason to respect what Romar has done at Washington. He has managed to win several different ways because he has had to adjust to the talent he can find. The Washington coaches are skilled recruiters, but they don't have it made.
Last week, a reporter asked West Virginia coach Bob Huggins about building his ideal program. His answer made me think of Romar.
"I wish I could do that," Huggins said. "I've never been in a place where we could select guys. We always just had to get the best guys we could and then work to their strengths. And we've changed through the years because we kind of have to do that.
"I would have liked to, at some time in my career, have had that opportunity just to go out and say, 'I like that guy. That's the guy I want.' But it's never worked out for me that way."
Surely, Romar would say the same. Unless you coach Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina or UCLA, you're preaching that sermon, too.
The ideal program is forever a fluid concept. Success is often a product of outlasting disappointment and making the best of those prime opportunities when good recruiting and good coaching become aligned with good timing and good luck.
The Huskies haven't hit the wall, really. It's merely a door they must keep knocking on, again and again and again. They must keep building NCAA tournament-worthy teams, believing in their way of doing things and taking calculated risks when deciding to recruit those big-name, big-bodied post players.
Romar has done amazing work to get the program this far in eight seasons. The next step might not happen as quickly.
Until then, it's wise to cherish every tournament run, every Sweet 16, every moment of the process, even the agonizing ones. One day, the bitter losses will make an elite breakthrough even sweeter.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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