The Huskies Saturday night saw a good Pac-12 Conference team worthy of an NCAA basketball tournament berth. But they weren’t looking in a mirror. They were looking at Stanford. Or more precisely, they were looking up at Stanford.
Bigger, stronger, faster.
But not all that much in any category.
Given the distance first-year coach Mike Hopkins had to travel — much further than the mileage between his old job at Syracuse and Seattle — to get the Huskies where they are (3-2 in conference, 13-5 overall), he and his players can be proud that year-to-year progress was apparent to even grade-school Huskies fans.
After dispatching Cal Thursday 66-56, the Huskies, free of seniors and big men who can score, were on a 15-2 run against the suddenly nervous Cardinal (4-1, 10-8), who already were nursing welts from having had 12 shots swatted back into their grills.
The deficit was down to 62-60 inside four minutes, and Hec Ed’s 8,256 customers were nearing a state of ecstasy. Then, of all people, Hopkins screwed up.
At least that’s his contention.
On consecutive Stanford possessions, he called for traps on the ball. The Cardinal responded well, whipping the ball to open shooters Daejon Davis and Dorian Pickens.
Up to that point, Stanford hit just two of nine beyond the arc. Suddenly, it was four for 11, the two three-balls boosting the lead to 68-60, and the Huskies were toast.
“I thought those were the two back-breakers, which were both on me,” Hopkins said in the wake of the 73-64 defeat, raising his hand as if he had fouled. “Those are the calls where sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
“Sometimes aggressive can get you beat, and sometimes you want to be unpredictable.”
Sometimes? No. The Huskies have no time to not be aggressive. They’re too short, too skinny, too young to be anything but full tilt. We shall politely disagree with Hopkins. When the primary weapons are energy and athleticism, the throttle must be open.
To get as close as they did to Stanford, they had to do numerous things well. They cut their turnovers from 20 Thursday to 10 Saturday, they forced Stanford into 18 turnovers (10 steals) and the 12 blocks will leave emotional scars. The fabled 2-3 zone Hopkins brought from Syracuse had numerous moments where it did what it was supposed to do: Neutralize the talent/height disparity.
But it also left the Huskies out of position to rebound, as is often the case with zones. Stanford killed the Huskies on the boards, 48-28, producing a 13-2 advantage on second-chance points.
The Huskies’ two big men didn’t do a lot. Noah Dickerson, a 6-8 forward, played just 19 minutes and had eight points and seven rebounds. Sam Timmins, a 6-11 center, played 23 minutes and had two free throws and five boards.
That kind of production means the little guys have to carry the freight. Not much was delivered, especially behind the arc — a dismal 5 of 22.
“Our best offensive team is our smallest team,” Hopkins said. “I wouldn’t say our smallest team is our worst defensive team . . . ”
But it is. And sometimes, like Saturday, it included four freshmen at once.
But none of the foregoing should be considered disappointing. In fact, the positives should be encouraging, considering that the the previous Huskies team under coach Lorenzo Romar won two conference games total and finished with a 13-game losing streak.
With a single recruiting class patched with the holdovers, Hopkins has created from the ashes a respectable team. Not an NCAA tournament team, but hey, respectable is good, especially in a basketball conference where the biggest headlines are reserved for international shoplifting, federal wire fraud and a dysfunctional father.
Hopkins is a 12-points-a-night big man from the tourney, but whatever else ails the Huskies seems fixable in-season. Like shooting.
“Sometimes we can get too stagnant,” he said. “Sometimes you can hold the ball too much. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve got some good offensive players. We have to shoot better.
“If we make the extra pass, we got a shot.”
That’s a fairly modest to-do list, especially considering the smoking pile that was left with the departure of Romar and his prized recruiting class. Several incoming freshmen scattered, including the 6-3 Davis, the former Garfield High School star who has started since the beginning and had an impressive 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Had Davis stayed, it would have given the Huskies a big boost. On the other hand, if Hopkins hadn’t made a couple of rookie mistakes Saturday, Stanford might have lost.
It’s a year of training wheels for everyone. The Huskies are farther down the road than anyone expected.