SEATTLE (AP) On a recent Wednesday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Michael Porter Jr. walked out of the locker room with a security detail at his side, pausing only momentarily for a photograph with a fan in a purple Washington hat who had found his way into the hallway behind the court.
Porter had just put on yet another show as the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit for the nation’s No. 1 high school team. He scored 41 points in a league tournament game on the same court where Washington fans expect Porter to do the same next year after having signed to play for the Huskies.
The idea of Porter – along with fellow prep standouts Jaylen Nowell, Daejon Davis and Blake Harris – playing for the Huskies next season assumes that Washington coach Lorenzo Romar is back as well. But Romar’s future is hazy as the Huskies are headed toward likely their worst of his 15 seasons, and a sixth straight season of missing the NCAA Tournament.
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The potential of next year and the reality of this troubled season, combined with the past six seasons without an NCAA appearance, have created an uneasy dynamic with the Huskies headed into the final couple weeks of the regular season.
Porter and the rest of his recruiting class are among the best in the country and receiving acclaim the likes of which Washington has never seen for an incoming class. Yet that entire class could evaporate if Washington’s administration decides to move on from Romar after this season.
Washington athletic director Jen Cohen declined to comment on Romar’s future, saying she will wait until the end of the season to evaluate the program.
”It’s been difficult, no doubt about it, because we continue to tinker, trying to find the right formula and so far we haven’t found it yet,” Romar said of his 15th season. ”That always makes it a difficult situation. But we’re still fighting and clawing, trying to figure it out in the short season that we have left.”
Romar’s tenure at his alma mater has never seemed so tenuous. Washington is 2-13 in conference play, having lost nine straight, tied for the longest losing streak in school history. Washington has never won fewer than five conference games under Romar. Short of a miracle run in the Pac-12 tournament, Washington’s season will end with no postseason opportunities.
But that recruiting class is clouding all decisions about Romar, especially Porter. It’s rare a 6-foot-10 player with the skills of a guard can exceed the hype surrounding his status as the top prep player in the country.
”We’ve never spoke on all the attention and some of it is I think he’s been getting it for so long now so coming here he’s not like `This is new,”’ said Porter’s high school coach, former NBA All-Star Brandon Roy. ”… The attention is not new to him so we don’t even speak about it. You wouldn’t know. He’s like all the other guys.”
This was a particularly unfortunate time for Romar’s program to suddenly fall off with Washington in the midst of an athletics surge.
The women’s basketball team reached the Final Four last year and had been ranked in the top 10 most of this season. Washington football won its first conference title in 16 years and reached the College Football Playoff. In the past 12 months, the Huskies won a national title in women’s golf, and made deep NCAA tournament runs in volleyball, softball, baseball and men’s soccer.
The success of those other programs makes Romar’s issues stand out. And the downturn has come even though the program has attracted NBA-caliber talent.
The Huskies have had nine players drafted in the first round during Romar’s tenure – a list that doesn’t include All-Star and MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas. Six of the nine have been drafted in years the Huskies failed to make the NCAAs.
This year’s star freshman and a projected top five pick, Markelle Fultz, will become the 10th in June.
Should Romar return, there will likely be clear expectations. If he can’t win with possibly the best recruiting class in school history – combined with a core group that played extensively during their freshman and sophomore seasons and should be better suited for complementary roles – it will be clear the Huskies should move on. If he’s able to rediscover success, Romar will buoy his chances of someday retiring without leaving – or being told he’s leaving – Washington.
”As a head coach, I’ve been involved in a lot of wins and some successful teams and have tasted it, so no, I don’t doubt myself,” Romar said. ”I continue to look at ways to try to find a way to get it done and to be better.”
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