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Sports >  UW basketball

Matt Calkins: Washington’s Mike Hopkins out to show that last season’s struggles were an anomaly

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 29, 2020

By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Short memories.

They are a staple of the sports world. Athletes will say they are paramount to their confidence.

Go 0 for 4 in the batter’s box? Delete it from your mind. Get beat on a go route? Act as though it never happened.

But sometimes short memories can work against those in sports. Sometimes all the previous success one has had can be deemed irrelevant if he or she doesn’t perform in the present.

Consider Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins. The former Syracuse assistant came to Washington as a low-profile name who quickly remade UW into a high-profile program. Inheriting a team that went 9-22 the previous season, Hopkins led the Huskies to 21 wins in his first year, then 27 in his second year, when Washington returned to the NCAA Tournament after a seven-season drought. But then came last season, when the Huskies fell about 30 stories short of the skyscraping expectations.

With five-star recruits Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels on the roster, Washington looked primed to make its deepest NCAA Tournament run since the 1950s. A second consecutive Pac-12 title seemed likely to follow, as did an incessantly sold-out Alaska Airlines Arena.

So when UW finished last in the Pac-12 after going 15-17 overall and 5-13 in conference, it felt like “Waterworld” – all hype, no substance.

It was wondrous to watch what Hopkins did with the players his predecessor, Lorenzo Romar, recruited when he arrived at Washington. The Huskies’ zone defense helped turn Matisse Thybulle into a star, as he tallied more than three steals and two blocks per game en route to becoming national defensive player of the year.

But could Hopkins have the same success with his recruits? Could he create as well as he could develop?

These are the questions that linger above the coach as he enters his fourth year on the job. In hopes of proving that last season was simply an anomaly, this could be Hopkins’ defining season.

Anyone who has met Hopkins, of course, knows this isn’t something he is going to discuss. His focus is always on his players and their perpetual quest to improve. That was the tone during much of his conference call Monday, when he also let it be known that he has implemented a new offense.

Getting stops wasn’t the issue for the Huskies last season, as they finished second in the conference in scoring defense. Getting buckets was the challenge for the team that ended up 11th in the Pac-12 in points per game. With Stewart and McDaniels having both left for the NBA, Hopkins is tasked with trying to restructure an offensive system that, at times, seemed downright broken.

“We’re trying to play faster offensively. Last year, you know, we shared the ball, but I just felt our player movement wasn’t great, so we’ve gotten better with our spacing and player movement,” said Hopkins, noting that the Huskies’ offense was too “post-oriented” last season. “It’s a better flow, a better rhythm and I think will be way more effective.”

But does he have the tools to turn that rhythm and flow into points and wins?

It helps getting Quade Green back. The Huskies weren’t the same after academic ineligibility took the point guard away just as conference play began last season. Green’s floor leadership and 3-point shooting (44.7 percent last season) will be crucial for Washington, which struggled from the outside in 2019-20.

What the Huskies don’t know is whether they will have last season’s leading scorer, Nahziah Carter, who has been suspended for violating the Intercollegiate Athletics student code of conduct. Details were not disclosed.

They also are still waiting to see if transfers Erik Stevenson and Cole Bajema will be eligible to play. And though USC transfer J’Raan Brooks and North Idaho College transfer Nate Pryor are expected to help, the Huskies have proven that expectations and reality can be wildly different.

This is where the coach comes in.

If last season had been Hopkins’ debut, the Husky hoops fan base likely would be in a panic. They would have sized him up as a coach who could lure Ferrari-level talent while churning out a Yugo of a product.

Fortunately, there is a track record. People remember that. It’s just not something they’ll remember for long.

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