Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar has been instrumental in making the Huskies… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)
The program Lorenzo Romar inherited at Washington in 2002 had lost its way.
The Huskies were becoming increasingly irrelevant in the college basketball world. Even within the state, Washington was an afterthought. Gonzaga was the hot topic around the Starbucks counter.
"It's too broad a statement to say we had to change the culture," Romar said.
That may be an understatement.
The Huskies are now the basketball equivalent of grunge. Their arena is loud, their play intense, which has made Seattle a college basketball nirvana on the West Coast. Washington's success is nearly equal to UCLA's since Romar set up shop.
The Huskies are currently 14-7 overall, 7-2 and tied for first place in the Pac-12 Conference. And they have been a particular problem for the Bruins (12-9, 5-4), who will try to end a seven-game losing streak at Alaska Airlines Arena Thursday night.
"Lorenzo has developed a program that wins year in and out," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. "He has recruited well and his teams always do a great job defensively forcing turnovers."
Washington is the only conference team Howland has a losing record against, going 7-10 in eight seasons. The Bruins have not won at Washington since 2004, in Howland's first season.
The road has not been kind to the Bruins this season. UCLA is 1-4, its only win at USC. The Bruins were swept in the Bay Area and in Oregon.
Breaking that trend will be a chore against the Huskies, who beat Arizona and Arizona State on the road last week to move into a first-place tie with California.
Still, Romar is wary, saying UCLA is "on upward trend right now. They have some positive things."
He is also expecting more out of the Huskies. "We still can get better," Romar said. "This is not our ceiling."
Romar has raised that roof for nine seasons after prepping for the job as head coach at St. Louis and Pepperdine. He was also an UCLA assistant under Jim Harrick from 1992 to 1996, helping to procure the talent that won the 1995 national championship.
The Huskies enjoyed moderate success in the late 1990s, but were 31-58 and finished no higher than eighth in conference from 1999 to 2002. Romar's redevelopment program in Seattle has nearly mirrored Howland's work in Westwood.
Howland has a 178-66 record with six NCAA tournament appearances and three trips to the Final Four in the past seven seasons. The Bruins have won three conference titles and two conference tournament titles.
Romar, during that same time period, has gone 166-73, going to the NCAA tournament six times and reaching a regional semifinal three times. The Huskies won the conference in 2008-09 — their first outright title since 1952-53 — and have won the conference tournament three times.
When Romar arrived at Washington, he found a program that needed work on two fronts.
On the court, Romar said, "They were coming off three rough years. We had to get the winning mind-set back."
The Huskies, with only one senior and six freshmen, went 10-17 in 2002-03, Romar's first season. The next season, Washington reached the NCAA tournament.
Off the court, Romar said, "We weren't able to play too many guarantee games in nonconference. The attendance was way down."
Attendance is no longer a problem. Romar's teams have created a formidable home-court advantage with their high-pressure defense and high-blood-pressure fans.
"It's really loud," Howland said. So loud, he said, that during timeouts, "we have cards so the players can communicate by reading versus verbal."
UCLA players know what awaits them Thursday night.
"They get on a run and their crowd really gets going," UCLA guard Tyler Lamb said.
UCLA is 1-7 at Washington under Howland. The Bruins are 46-25 on the road against the rest of the conference.
"Of course we want to go into their place and beat them," forward Travis Wear said. "That's not going to be easy. It's tough up there."
And has been since Romar showed up.