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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Mike Hopkins, Washington not fooled by Gonzaga’s uncharacteristic start ahead of Friday’s matchup

Dec. 8, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 8, 2022 at 5:43 p.m.

Mike Hopkins isn’t fooled.

Earlier this week during a news conference in Seattle, Washington’s sixth-year coach was asked about the next challenge on the Huskies’ schedule under the premise that No. 18 Gonzaga might actually be … vulnerable?

It’s not the first time that theory has surfaced through the first month of the college basketball season. It’s unlikely to be the last.

Gonzaga’s collective 38-point margin of defeat against Texas (93-74), Purdue (84-66) and Baylor (64-63) is the school’s largest through three losses to open a season since 2000-01. Gonzaga’s national ranking is its lowest since Jan. 1, 2018, and the Bulldogs needed a late flurry on Monday against Kent State to save the country’s longest home win streak and avoid a fourth loss that could have dropped them out of the polls altogether.

In their current state, the Bulldogs aren’t considered to be a national title contender and were recently projected as a No. 4 seed at the NCAA Tournament seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

But, vulnerable? Hopkins isn’t buying it.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “They’ve played the hardest schedule in the country. They’ve traveled all over the place. It’s kind of been their motto from the beginning. That’s been one of the things I respect about them so much, willing to play any place, anytime, anywhere.

“They’re always really good, they’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion, the last two years in Drew Timme. They’ve got a local (Seattle) kid, Nolan Hickman, who’s as good a guard out there, Julian Strawther. They’re loaded.”

The respect goes both ways as Gonzaga (6-3) and Washington (7-2) prepare for Friday’s game at McCarthey Athletic Center , renewing an in-state rivalry that’s been dormant the past two seasons due to scheduling conflicts and COVID-19 setbacks.

The Huskies are bracing for the most talented team on their schedule to this point and an encounter with Gonzaga’s All-American forward, who’s coming off one of the most impactful games of his college career – a 29-point, 17-rebound outing against Kent State.

Few teams have been equipped to contain Timme and UW’s frontcourt took a huge hit when Franck Kepnang, a Pac-12 All-Defense honorable mention selection at Oregon last year, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Oregon State. The Huskies will likely try to combat Timme with Braxton Meah, a 7-foot-1 transfer from Fresno State who’s been efficient on the offensive end, making 13 of 15 field goals in UW’s past two games, but struggles with foul trouble.

“He’s so good, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Hopkins said of Timme. “… They’ve got multiple guys that have had big numbers, but I’ve seen him score 20 straight points. That’s his ability. … He’s a guy that is going to go down as one of the greatest college players of all time, in my opinion.”

Hopkins’ 2-3 zone defense, derived from longtime mentor and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, has had varying levels of success over his tenure in Seattle. This season, Washington is limiting opponents to 63.9 points per game, but the Huskies haven’t faced a top-70 offense (KenPom) through their first nine games.

Gonzaga’s offense has regressed from the past two years, but the Bulldogs still rank No. 4 nationally on KenPom’s scale.

“That zone is something you don’t face, and they’re coming off a big win against Colorado,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of UW. “That was a big win for them and I’m sure they’re feeling good and they’ve got some nice athletes. They’ve got the (Keion) Brooks kid from Kentucky and they’ve got a nice little freshman guard (Keyon Menifield) who’s scoring it really, really well. ‘Hop’ does a great job teaching that zone.”

From a resume-building standpoint, Friday’s game may not be as significant as others on Gonzaga’s nonconference slate, but it doesn’t come without high stakes. The Bulldogs don’t have another regional opponent on their schedule this season, and GU’s seniors, Timme and Anton Watson, can speak to the excitement that’s usually attached to in-state rivalries, having played the Huskies in Seattle in 2019.

“The energy’s going to be crazy. They’re pumped,” Timme said. “I know they’ve got pretty much a brand-new team, so I haven’t really got to watch them just because we’ve been so focused and hectic this week.

“We’re going to have to buckle down and double down and really fight and bring that grit, because they’re going to want to obviously compete for the top team in the state. So it’s going to be a big game, for sure.”

The Huskies, meanwhile, are aware of Gonzaga’s run of dominance in the rivalry series that dates back to 1910. The Zags have won six in a row and 13 of the past 14 going back to 1998.

“That’s a big game. I’m looking forward to it,” UW’s Meah said. “That’s a statement game. We got to win that.”

The only player on UW’s roster who was around the last time the Zags and Huskies met is fifth-year senior Jamal Bey, a guard averaging 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds. Four of Hopkins’ projected starters are Division I transfers, including Kentucky’s Brooks, a former top-50 national recruit who’s averaging better than 16 ppg and leads the Pac-12 in free-throw attempts per game (7.9)

Former Michigan guard Cole Bajema (10.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) can be a potent outside shooter and recently made 3 of 5 on 3-pointers in a 10-point win over Colorado. PJ Fuller, a Seattle native who started his career at TCU, averages 8.3 ppg and 3.3 apg.

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