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Sports >  UW basketball

Analysis: After 1-6 start, time is running out for Washington basketball to salvage 2020-21 season

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 23, 2020

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Las Vegas.  (Associated Press)
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Associated Press)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Any chance the Washington men’s basketball team has at salvaging a season that already seems lost depends on what happens over the next week.

The odds are stacked against the Huskies (1-6, 0-2 Pac-12) climbing out of the last-place spot in the conference and contending for an NCAA Tournament bid, which is what coach Mike Hopkins expected and seems wildly aspirational in hindsight.

To be fair, every coach begins the season with inflated expectations and Hopkins, an eternal optimistic, is no different.

Still, Hopkins elicited more than a few eye rolls last week after a 74-71 loss to Oregon when he said he believed the Huskies still had a chance to become an “elite” program.

After a humiliating 92-69 nonconference loss to Pac-12 rival Colorado on Sunday night, Washington appears to have regressed and resembles the hapless bunch that was hammered 86-52 by No. 2 Baylor in the season opener and lost 57-42 to UC Riverside.

Coincidentally, all three games were played in Las Vegas.

Here are three impressions of the Huskies.

‘We have a lot of work to do’: Riley Sorn is a UW architecture major with an interest in structural design, so the redshirt sophomore can probably spot design flaws in the construction of 10-story buildings and basketball teams.

“It just doesn’t seem like we’re very cohesive right now,” said Sorn, who scored a game-high and personal-best 16 points against Colorado on 7-for-8 shooting from the field. “That’s going to be the next 10 to 11 days of practice where we’re going to hopefully start to come together as a team more.

“We have a lot of work to do. We definitely have to be more cohesive as a team. I think, getting to know each other a lot more in practice over these next couple of weeks is going to be huge so we’ll be ready to go out on the 31st.”

In pre-COVID years, Washington would have just completed its nonconference portion of the schedule before entering an extended holiday break to prepare for the start of the Pac-12 season.

Like many teams around the country, the Huskies have been adversely impacted by the coronavirus. They had their season opener rescheduled three times. They were forced to cancel a four-team tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena. And they squeezed in a game against UC Riverside on short notice.

The next 10 days is Hopkins’ last chance to seriously address UW’s many flaws during practice before embarking on a 10-week, 18-game trek against Pac-12 competition.

Navigating the conference schedule is a grind most years and it’s impossible to predict how difficult it will be this time to manage travel demands, academic requirements and COVID-19 protocols.

Traditionally, practices and on-court workouts are limited as the season progresses to rest players, which makes the next 1½ weeks invaluable for struggling teams like the Huskies.

Washington is scheduled to return to the court at home on Dec. 31 against Arizona followed by Arizona State on Jan. 2.

Fix the defense first: At his core, Hopkins is a defensive-minded coach and a staunch advocate of his beloved 2-3 zone defense that he brought with him from Syracuse.

The Huskies have a laundry list of items that need to be corrected, but first and foremost they have to make sure opponents don’t score as easily as Colorado did Sunday.

The Buffaloes shot 48.3% from the field, 40% on 3-pointers (8 of 20) and 92.9% (26 of 28) on free throws. CU had 21 assists on 29 baskets, committed a season-low seven turnovers and had five players in double-digit scoring.

“Obviously, we’ve been hurt with our offensive starts and our offense in general,” Hopkins said via a teleconference Sunday. “But defensively, that’s the one thing we’ve got to be able to hang our hat on, and … we weren’t hanging our hat on it tonight.”

Even when Hopkins led Washington to back-to-back 20-plus win seasons, the Huskies had difficulty prevailing in shootout type of games.

In the past four years under Hopkins, UW is 11-22 when allowing teams to score at least 75 points. And the Huskies are 4-12 when teams reach 80 points.

Whatever tweaks or adjustments Hopkins makes over the next 10 days, he has to be careful not to adversely affect the defense.

Case in point, UW reshuffled the backcourt and started guards Nate Pryor and RaeQuan Battle in place of Erik Stevenson and Jamal Bey on Sunday.

The changes fixed the Huskies’ turnover problems considering they entered the game averaging 14.5 turnovers and finished with a season low nine.

The new lineup, however, did nothing to address UW’s rebounding issues. Pryor and Battle combined for three boards while the Huskies were adversely impacted by a 43-28 rebounding disparity.

Give the keys to Pryor: In his first start, Pryor finished with 15 points on 7-for-17 shooting, five assists and three steals to offset two turnovers in 36 minutes.

The North Idaho College transfer looks to be the ideal triggerman for UW’s offense, which is undergoing a transformation from a perimeter-oriented attack to a balanced offense.

Pryor is savvy enough to create shots for others, primarily backup center Sorn, who was the beneficiary of Pryor’s dribble drives and passes that led to dunks.

With Pryor running the offense, UW leading scorer Quade Green moves off the ball and is allowed to focus more squarely on finding ways to score.

When needed, Pryor can get a bucket and appears to favor a soft floater in the lane. Still, he has to improve a shaky 3-point shot. He’s 2 for 8 behind the arc and has passed up several open looks.

Battle (0 for 4 FG, 0-3 3-pointers) had a miserable outing in his first start of the season and was scoreless in 13 minutes. His struggles could be attributed to overzealousness, including a reckless flagrant foul late in the first half.

Meanwhile, it’s curious to note that Stevenson appears to have fallen out of the rotation.

The Wichita State transfer, who started the first six games, played just 7 minutes during Sunday’s 23-point defeat.

It was the second straight game Stevenson did not play in the second half.

Additionally, Hameir Wright may have also fallen out of favor with Hopkins. The senior forward went scoreless for the first time this season and failed to collect a rebound while logging a season-low 11 minutes.

Hopkins emptied the bench Sunday, which provided a long look at reserves Marcus Tsohonis and Cole Bajema.

Tsohonis took advantage of the extended minutes in garbage time and tallied 14 points in 12 minutes while Bajema, the Michigan transfer, was scoreless in 16 minutes.

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