Sometimes the hardest part of success is handling the pressure of expectations that accompany it. After last season's Pac-10 championship and a win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Washington men's basketball team is now expected to contend for another conference title. But as Husky head coach Lorenzo Romar knows, nothing is guaranteed and success in college sports can be fleeting.
"We mentioned this to our guys from Day one, that In 2004, '05 and '06, we went to the NCAA tournament and one year we were a No. 1 seed. We went to two Sweet 16s and were really close to getting to a Final Four. And the following year, 2007, it seemed like there was even more hype than there is right now, and we didn't even make the NCAA tournament. We didn't make the NCAA tournament the following year.
A bull's eye is on our back coming off the championship season, whatever the case may be, this is an entirely new year. As far as we're concerned, we're not going out there approaching anything like something's going to be handed to us. We've got to start from scratch."
But the Huskies have a team more than capable of realizing their pre-season expectations. And when you talk to the players, it's clear that the burden of success isn't going to weigh them down.
"I feel like first and foremost we need to defend the Pac-10 championship," explained Washington's returning leading scorer Isaiah Thomas. "We won it last year and I feel like with this group we can do it again.
Our goal, if we do what we're expected to do, is to go farther than we did last year," he continued. "In my mind, we can make it to the Final Four. We're that good. That's our goal. And everybody on this team should be thinking we're that good because we are."
Thomas is not alone.
"I think we are even more talented than last season," said sophomore sharp shooter Elston Turner. If we come together and play with the same intensity, we can go far in the tournament."
Romar isn't worried about he confidence his players exude but expects their play to match the talk.
"If our work ethic matches what we say, I think It's great that our team has a high self-esteem at this point," Romar said. "I don't think we're an arrogant or cocky team. But if we're willing to go out and bust our tails like we expect to do something special, then I'm not going to tell our guys that they're crazy. If you're willing to put the time in and come together as a team, well, then we'll see."
While some teams might be complacent after exceeding expectations, tasting success has only made these Huskies more hungry. The loss to Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament had a lasting effect. Some may call it cryptic, but for these Washington players it's motivation to make sure they never feel that pain again.
"I still think about it this day," said Thomas of the loss. "So many things as an individual I could have done, so many things my team could have done to win the game, but we didn't. You don't ever want to have that feeling going into the season; I could have did this, I could have did that.
That is why since the spring and summer we have been in each other's ear saying we are not going to let that happen again. We will leave it all out on the floor. You are going to lose games, but if you do, you lose knowing you played your hardest and played your heart out. We are going to make sure that doesn't happen again this year."
Senior forward Quincy Pondexter had a monster game in the loss, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking two shots. But none of that kills the pain.
"It has motivated me all summer," explained Pondexter. "To lose a game that big, on a national stage, in a game that close, it just hurts. What if we would have gone to the sweet sixteen? Who knows how far we actually could have gone. That is something that will stick with us the rest of our lives. We want to get further than that."
The reason they believe they can go even further in 2009-10 is because of athleticism and talent on the roster. Although they lost team leader and All-Pac-10 performer Jon Brockman, the Huskies return a host of dominant players and welcomed in some promising newcomers.
No team in the Pac-10 will be able and match Washington's athleticism and coach Romar sees some parallels between his newest squad and his sweet sixteen teams of past.
"This is probably our quickest team since 2005," he explained. "You lose Wolfinger and Wallace but you get Tyreese Breshers and Clarence Trent and they are both pretty quick and pretty athletic. There are not too many of our guys that can't play on the floor together. We are going to put a lot of different combinations out there."
There is also going to be fierce competition for starting jobs and playing time in the nine man rotation and Romar wouldn't have it any other way.
"What is going to happen is at our practices there is going to be a lot of intense battles going on," the head coach explained. "That is only going to make us better."
Players are excited at the potential of this up and down offense and suffocating defense. Fans will also be treated to an explosive style of basketball sure to keep them on their feet.
"We are going to be a lot quicker, a lot faster and we are going to get up and down," said Thomas.
"Everyone is excited about the type of team we can be," Turner added. "That is why we all came here, to play fast and score points. Now that we have so many interchangeable position, everyone is so fast. Even our bigs are fast. We have bigs as fast as guards. It is going to be a lot of fun and once we get the hang of the offense we will be exciting."
More importantly they have the chance to be special and bring even more exposure to a program quickly on the rise. Washington's basketball program is now on the map and ESPN college game day will be in town when they face UCLA February 20th. And this Friday, ESPNU's four-hour Midnight Madness special will be visiting the Huskies along with Connecticut, Duke, Georgetown, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, and North Carolina.
"I think it's great," Romar said. "It's one of the reasons the guys came here to school, to play on the big stage and get exposure and have a great college experience. And that's all part of it, if you are fortunate enough to attract that kind of attention. When you have an opportunity for your guys to be on national television, it's hard to turn down."
Thomas understands that you must win to gain respect and exposure and he's making sure the incoming freshman understand just how special the opportunity to play for this Husky team is.
"It's one of the best experiences of my lifetime," Thomas explained. "You don't want to be watching it on TV, you want people to be watching you. I tell all of the guys the more we win, the more we will be out there, the more people are going to see you as an individual and see us as a team. It builds year in and year out."
The next step is a deep run into the NCAA Tournament and they might have the talent to make it happen.