The University of Washington’s basketball offices are so close to each other that coaches from the men’s and women’s teams couldn’t help but bump into each other — if not literally, then figuratively — in the hallways.
Which is how Adia Barnes, then a Huskies assistant and now the second-year coach of the UA women’s basketball team, struck a relationship with the man who ran the Washington men’s program. His name: Lorenzo Romar, the Huskies’ longtime boss and now Sean Miller’s top assistant at Arizona.
Romar “had the culture I wanted,” said Barnes, whose Wildcats will face NAU on Thursday in Flagstaff. “He was so involved; his passion showed. He did academics and checked things off. No head coach does that. The NBA guys were coming back and playing pickup. Now I have Kelsey Plum come back here and talk to my team; it’s invaluable. Romar created that at Washington. He has integrity, class, professionalism and is a good coach.
“For me, I can call him to bounce things off. I just spent a few hours with him and I can learn more in those conversations than by reading a book. I am always learning how the best coaches do it. I trust him.”
Barnes and Romar are two of six players and coaches in McKale Center with Washington roots.
Three of Barnes’ staffers — associate head coach Sunny Smallwood, assistant coach Morgan Valley and graduate student manager Alexus Atchley — were once Huskies. Point guard Aarion McDonald transferred to the UA last offseason after beginning her career at UW.
Barnes, Smallwood, and Valley were at Washington during various parts of Romar’s 15-year tenure with the men. During that time, he picked up nearly 300 wins and collected the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award three times. He also coached 13 NBA players, including Brandon Roy, All-Star Isaiah Thomas, and last year’s No. 1 selection in the draft, Markelle Fultz.
The women’s coaches actually book-ended Romar’s stay. Smallwood was in Seattle from 1993-2004, and Barnes and Valley were there at the end.
Smallwood’s Washington teams went to the NCAA tournament six times, including an appearance in the 1995 Sweet 16 and 2001 Elite Eight.
“Lorenzo is a relationship guy; a good recruiter, and a good coach,” Smallwood said. “He makes sure you know he cares. He is a man of few words but when he speaks everyone listens as it is something of substance. He and Adia are similar in that they are selfless, good at heart and care about others.”
Valley was happy when she heard that Romar would be coaching at Arizona.
“He’s just a strong, positive influence,” said Valley, who spent two years at Washington before joining Barnes’ staff in April. “He’s showing young men a path that leads to success and does it every day by the way he lives his life.”
The respect goes both ways. Romar says he and Barnes often talked about game-management situations during her five-year stint (2011-16) with the Huskies.
“I would ask her questions, too,” he said. “We would learn from each other.”
Romar remembers watching and learning from Valley, who was a three-time national champion at UConn as a player before becoming a coach and joining the staff at Washington. The UW women’s team ran drills Romar had not seen before. Romar attended games, too; he was one of the first to hug Plum after she scored 57 points and became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer last year.
“From a players’ perspective, he was interested in our program and us,” said Atchley, who played on UW’s Final Four team, sharing the backcourt with Plum. “He’s genuine and approachable. If I watch him in games, he seems calm on the outside and I think this separates him from others and you can learn from that.”
Said McDonald, who transferred to the UA this offseason: “He makes me smile. He’s a good role model not just for the men, but for the women as well.”
These days, Romar watches Arizona games from the south side of McKale Center. And when he and Barnes meet, it’s in her office — not his.
What does Romar think of Barnes’ early successes?
“I am ecstatic for her,” he said. “But look at her background — as an athlete here, as a pro, as a WNBA broadcaster. She is talented and smart. Why wouldn’t she be successful?”