For many years, it was the UCLA Bruins that carried the torch as the Pac-10's premier basketball program; after all it had an 88-game winning streak on its resume, as well as 10 national titles under legendary coach John Wooden.
After that, in the 1990s, it was essentially the Arizona Wildcats under Lute Olson who basically were the Pac-10's top program, winning a national title in 1997 as well as playing in multiple Final Fours and reaching the tournament for 25 straight years.
After that, it was again the UCLA Bruins under Ben Howland who took the throne at the top of the conference, reaching three straight Final Fours, albeit no national title.
However, now, despite still having not carried away a national championship and being the kings of CBS' annual One Shining Moment montage, it does appear that the Washington Huskies, under coach Lorenzo Romar, are quickly appearing to be the top dawgs of the Pacific-10 conference.
Granted, the Huskies do not have the allure and tradition that the Bruins, the Wildcats, and other top and elite programs across the country enjoy, and have not gone on a run of per se 10 national titles in 11 years like UCLA did, or a 25-year tournament streak like Arizona has done.
However, over the past few seasons, ever since Romar took the Washington job before the 2002-03 season, the prestige of the Washington program has risen enough to safely consider them the current "kings" of the Pac-10 per se.
Under Romar, the Huskies have had a record of 171-90 overall (84-60 in the conference) and have gone to five NCAA tournaments (including three Sweet 16 appearances, including one as the No. 1 seed in the 2005 tourney, and this year's tourney as a No. 11 seed), and have been a postseason team in six of the eight years.
Under Romar, the Huskies have gone 7-4 in the tournament, and have dramatically changed their image as once a soft program in the shadows of a traditionally more successful football program, to now being the top-draw in the school's athletic program, and also in many ways becoming the top sporting draw in the Seattle-area.
Before Romar's arrival in Seattle in 2002, Washington was a morbid program.
Of course, they had some solid runs like back-to-back tournament bids in 1998 and 1999 under Bob Bender, coming painfully close to reaching the Elite Eight in 1998 after losing a heart-breaker to Connecticut in that tournament. They also had some solid players such as Todd MacCulloch and Detlef Schrempf (who played a good portion of his professional career just down the street with the Seattle Supersonics), but it was still not a program that was even close to the program it is now.
They only had nine tournament appearances, and even with a Final Four appearance in 1953, the Huskies were one of the programs recruits in the West Coast probably least liked to play for.
And then came Romar.
Romar came to the University of Washington just before the 2002-03 season after serving as the coach at both Pepperdine and Saint Louis, appearing in the NIT once with the Waves, and leading Saint Louis to an NCAA Tournament bid once.
However, his success with the Huskies has pretty much dwarfed his previous achievements with those programs, and he now is considered to be one of the top coaches in the nation, at least in my and other observers' books.
He has brought unprecedented success with the Huskies, recruited exceptionally well, and has brought a winning tradition never before seen with the Washington program.
With stars such as Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jon Brockman, Spencer Hawes, and current stars Quincy Pondexter and Isiah Thomas having played their college ball with the Huskies under Romar, the star power is there.
No, the list at this point is not as deep as Arizona's or UCLA's; however, it is a good start for a program that has been increasingly raising its prestige among college basketball fans.
Of course, it does help that the Huskies have basically a top-level recruiting backyard in the Seattle-Tacoma area, which is one of the more overlooked basketball hotbeds in the nation.
The area has produced stars such as Roy, Robinson, former Arizona Wildcat Jason Terry, former Michigan Wolverine Jamal Crawford, and former Oregon Duck Aaron Brooks.
And Romar has used the Western Washington talent to his advantage, landing top stars such as Roy, Robinson, Brockman, Hawes, and current Huskies Thomas, Venoy Overton, and Abdul Gaddy.
Last year, the Huskies seemingly came out of nowhere and earned a 25-8 regular season record, along with the school's first regular season Pac-10 title since 1953.
This run of success came after two down years where the Huskies merely had a CBI first-round loss at home to Valparaiso.
That spectacular season helped the Huskies basketball program to the forefront of the Seattle sports scene, which was reeling with losing team after losing team, and is now a well-supported program locally, just like the football program once was.
The Huskies followed up last season with another solid regular season, but it has been in the NCAA tournament where Washington has done the most damage.
As a No. 11 seed, the Huskies have played their best basketball when it has mattered the most, defeating No. 6-seed Marquette after coming back from a double-digit deficit in the second half on a game-winning shot by Pondexter, and blitzing and blowing out No. 3-seed New Mexico, setting up a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 2-seed and Big East champion West Virginia.
With the current stature of the Husky program, and with the consistently-solid recruiting standard put in place of Romar, and the incredible fan support, and the talent the Huskies always seem to feature on the court, look for the Washington Huskies to emerge as the top program in the Pac-10 for years to come.
As of right now, the run to being a No. 1 seed in the 2005 tournament was probably been the best basketball Husky fans have witnessed. But look for that team, as great as it was, to probably be eclipsed by another Husky team with talent, coaching, and support in the near future.
Under Romar, it's a feat that will be expected from basketball observers along with the fan base.
Of course, the Pac-10 will only improve in the years to come. Arizona State has emerged as a solid program under coach Herb Sendek after a morbid pass—basically a poor man's Washington Huskies story.
Arizona has recruited exceptionally well under new coach Sean Miller, who has replaced legendary coach Lute Olson.
California has transformed into a Pac-10 contending program with Mike Montgomery taking the coaching post in Palo Alto, and Oregon will have a new coach and a new arena...a recipe for success in many cases. And, of course, they also have the Nike money.
Oregon State is on the right track with Craig Robinson. So is Stanford with Johnny Dawkins and also Washington State with Ken Bone, while USC had a solid season with Kevin O'Neill while being dogged with NCAA violations.
So expect the Pac-10 to improve in years to come on a team-by-team basis.
However, with that, expect the Huskies to be the top program in the conference for the near future. With the solid recruiting they enjoy year-after-year, and the coaching they have enjoyed under Romar, and the spectacular support from a devoted fan base, their stature as the top program in the conference should only intensify in the near future.
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