A hoops program that can’t shoot straight

  Having covered University of Washington basketball for 13 years back in another lifetime, I began to perceive a trend in about 2010.

  The Huskies seemed to be frittering away a lot of talent.

  What was becoming particularly noticeable was that NBA first-round draft choices were cycling through the program, with surprisingly little effect on the proceedings. Spencer Hawes spent a year at Washington and exited in 2007 off an 8-10 Pac-10 season. In 2012, the Huskies had two first-round picks, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten Jr., but played in the NIT.

  The pattern would continue, so I set out to document how many times Washington had a first-round pick but the Huskies failed to make the NCAA tournament in the year of that draft, compared to the rest of Division I.

    I was staggered by what I found. Through any period of several years or longer, starting with 2007, the Huskies had far more such shortfalls than anybody else.

   Sometimes the Huskies had two such standouts in one season, such as Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray in 2016. It happened again in 2020 with Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.

   I gave it up about 2020, at which time I’d discovered that Washington had had nine first-round picks since 2007 who didn’t make the tournament that year – and nobody else in the country had more than three. 

  At any rate, now is a good time to take a hard look at the UW program, which is searching for a new coach to replace the cashiered Mike Hopkins to lead it into the Big Ten next season.

  Here’s the reality: For all the hoopla about the Huskies sitting in a rich talent pool in the Seattle area; for all the bravado about the “206;” for all the relatively enthusiastic fan support for the college game in a pro-sports city; for all the consensus that the Washington coaching job is a good one; this is a program whose defining historical characteristic is underachievement.

  In Texas, they have a term for this: Tall hat, no cattle.

  Yes, the Huskies have had the occasional star, people like Bob Houbregs, Detlef Schrempf, Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas. It’s also a program that has fired its last six coaches, good ones like Hall of Famer Marv Harshman and not-so-good ones like Andy Russo and Hopkins.

  Washington wouldn’t think of comparing itself to its cross-state rival, Washington State. Yet their farthest advancement in the NCAA tournament is a virtual dead-heat; the Huskies, while a far more frequent participant, haven’t exceeded the Cougars in that metric. Washington went to the Final Four in 1953 in a 22-team tournament, the Cougars went to the final game of an eight-team event in 1941. Both won two games to get there.

  Not since that ’53 team led by Houbregs have the Huskies done better than a Sweet 16. That was 71 years ago.

  The NCAA tournament isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the defining measure of a program. But it’s a big one, and the Huskies’ all-time record in it is 19-18. Just … meh.

  My first brush with the quirks of the UW program came in the Andy Russo regime. In 1988, the Huskies went on a winless four-game road trip and gave up 116 points to Arizona, and two nights later, 120 to Arizona State in a game in which two Sun Devils and one Husky were ejected for a dustup on the floor.

  I went to practice upon their return, and Russo explained that the Huskies would be stronger for it, that it was like an eggshell breaking, and if you put it back together, it would be strengthened.

  I’d never heard of anybody putting an eggshell back together.

  The Russo years gave way to the era of Lynn Nance, who was a former NCAA investigator and FBI agent who always seemed to be concerned with the next dark thing around the corner. One year, the Huskies entertained their fans with four – yes, four – non-Division I games.

  At one sleepy media gathering, there were three of us there, not including Nance. And during a brief lull in the questioning, a newspaper colleague filled the void with, “When you were with the FBI, did you ever have to shoot anybody?”

  Bob Bender had some late ‘90s success, getting to two straight NCAA tournaments before it ran aground. That augured Lorenzo Romar, who, by my reckoning, was no better than Washington’s No. 4 pick for the job.

  In a 15-year run, Romar had some electric teams that ran and dunked and sometimes packed old Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Six of them went to the NCAA tournament, three made the Sweet 16 and in 2006, the Huskies were only a botched finish against Connecticut away from what would have been a game with George Mason to get to the Final Four.

  But none of Romar’s last six teams made the NCAA. At the end, his tenure was marked by the school’s decision to pay an assistant’s salary of $300,000 to inexperienced Michael Porter Sr., who, oh by the way, had two hot-prospect sons on the way, including the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, Michael Porter Jr.

  On came Hopkins from under Jim Boeheim’s wing, prospering for two years with Romar’s leftover talent. For that, he fell into a six-year, $17.5-million deal that became an unstable, teeth-grinding exercise Washington couldn’t wait to get out from under.

  Still, through Washington’s clunky weirdness, Seattle remains a pipeline of ready talent for the Huskies. Almost counterintuitively, along with that “206” identity comes a certain bravado about players passing on the hometown school to depart for nearby programs perceived as inferior to Washington, modest as is the UW’s history.

  Back in 2013, Gary Bell Jr. told me the homies gave him grief for making Gonzaga his college destination. The morning of the day he said it, the Zags had just been ranked No. 1 for the first of several long stretches.

  Now the mysteries of the Big Ten await the Huskies. One school of thought sees that as a comfortable landing spot for Washington, a conference without bluebloods. No Kentucky or North Carolina or Duke to worry about.

  I’d be wary. Ohio State and Michigan are in a lull that doesn’t figure to last. Meanwhile, the Big Ten grinds you with good – maybe not great – programs. Since 2019, the league hasn’t failed to put at least eight teams into the NCAA tournament, programs fueled by large, energetic crowds.

  But the Big Ten hasn’t won an NCAA title since 2000. And lately, it’s sputtered overall in the tournament.

  Some might call that a perfect fit for Washington.