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Looking ahead: Washington equipped to break NCAA drought

Lorenzo Romar's Huskies tied for sixth in the Pac-12 and went to the NIT last season. Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Washington Huskies.

Lorenzo Romar remains one of the most revered personalities in the history of Washington’s athletic department. But he knows goodwill only goes so far. Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen had her interim tag removed last month. At her introductory news conference last month, she said she’s “100 percent behind him right now.” The Huskies haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons. Should five become six, Romar might not see a 15th season on the sideline despite being the second-winningest coach in program history.

Washington finished tied for sixth last season in the Pac-12 and earned an NIT appearance despite relying heavily on seven freshmen. Those Huskies should be better as sophomores, despite the top two players in the class -- Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray – going to the NBA draft. Chriss could go from being No. 60 in the ESPN 100 for 2015 to a top-five pick.

Washington will still have a relatively young team -- forward Malik Dime is the only scholarship senior. But the team is equipped to make a return to the top tier of the league and, more importantly, the NCAA tournament.

Washington coaches believe small forward Matisse Thybulle can make a leap in his second year, similar to the one of former UW guard Terrence Ross, who transformed from role player to second-leading scorer in 2011-12. Thybulle started every game last season and averaged just 6.2 points while consistently deferring to the stronger personalities of Andrew Andrews and Murray. Thybulle should take on a much larger role offensively next season.

Freshman guard Markelle Fultz is expected to help with that transition. Fultz ranked No. 7 overall in the class of 2016, and the Huskies beat out a who’s-who of college hoops to sign him from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. At his core, Fultz is a point guard because he makes others around him better. The ease with which he uses his 6-foot-4 frame to score sometimes makes it seem as if he’s more of a shooting guard. The Huskies will entrust the ball to him early, and Fultz seems prepared to handle the responsibility. Fultz could end up the next one-and-done talent to come through Washington.

But this team will benefit because of the players who returned for a second season. Sophomore Noah Dickerson is the leading scorer returning with a 7.5-point average last season. Sophomore David Crisp is their leading 3-point shooter returning, with 51 makes, and he averaged 7.2 points per game. Sophomore Dominic Green wasn’t fully healthy the first half of the season, but showed a lot of improvement during Pac-12 play.

Dime, a 6-foot-9 forward, is returning as the league’s leading shot-blocker. He averaged 2.6 blocks per game last season while coming off the bench for Washington. Dime should receive a lot more help this season as the Huskies look to shore up their frontcourt.

They were regularly outmuscled on the boards last season, but that should stop this year with the addition of Sam Timmins and transfer Matthew Atewe. Timmins, a 6-foot-10 freshman center from New Zealand, will bring a physical presence to the lineup that the Huskies lacked. Atewe, a 6-foot-8 junior, played his freshman year at Auburn and had a career-high 13-rebound game against a Kentucky frontline that included Julius Randle.

Washington’s freshman class also enjoyed a late boost when Carlos Johnson, a 6-foot-4 guard/forward, signed late. Johnson originally committed to UNLV in November and was still dedicated when Chris Beard initially took the coaching job. But when Beard bounced to take the Texas Tech job, Johnson considered the program too unstable.

Compared to last season, Washington should be much more consistent thanks to having that much more experience. The Huskies will even get a head start on the season when they take a foreign tour to Australia and New Zealand in August. The added practices that go with playing those games should help them become cohesive well before many of their competitors.

Romar is counting on it. The Huskies’ youth showed last season in their 3-7 record on the road and in their trouble closing out tight games. Seven of Washington’s 15 losses last season came in games decided by two possessions or fewer. If Romar can reverse that trend, he’ll have the Huskies dancing again.