Despite a fade in the final six weeks, the Washington men’s hoops turnaround under first-year head coach Mike Hopkins was a revelation. He took holdovers from the collapsed regime of Lorenzo Romar, added a local recruit he convinced to stay, Jaylen Nowell, instilled organization and inspiration, and went from nine wins to 21.
Atop the slag heap of a men’s basketball season in the Pac-12 Conference, the Huskies were the rose.
To the list of exactly everyone in the college hoops world who didn’t see this coming, add one — Hopkins.
“It’s everything I always thought it would be, and even better,” Hopkins told Associated Press reporter Tim Booth in January. “That’s not because our record or wins and losses, but experience . . . It feels great to be stretched, and challenged and pulled. It’s been incredible.”
By one measurement, UW hoops hasn’t been stretched like this in its history.
The season ended Monday at 21-13 after an 85-81 road loss in the second round of the National Invitation tournament to St. Mary’s, at 30-5 perhaps the best team not asked to the NCAA tourney dance.
The 12-win improvement year-over-year exceeded by one the previous mark for first-year coaches set by none other than Clarence S. “Hec” Edmundson, for whom the hoops house was named (yes, kidlets, there was a time when high-achieving people were more honored than corporations).
Colleague Steve Rudman compiled a chart that shows in 1920-21, the Huskies were 18-4 in Edmundson’s first season after Stub Allison went 7-8. The 11-game pivot stood for nearly a century until Hopkins, an accomplished but unsatisfied assistant for 22 years under Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim, came west.
Once Hopkins realized that Boeheim at 73 was just getting going after 42 years, the notion of the promised succession to head coach at his alma mater seemed a little silly.
“I had become the joke,” he told the Washington Post’s John Feinstein in February. “People would say, how long have you been associate coach in waiting? Fifteen years? More? It was as if they were counting in dog years.”
It’s hard to know whether Hopkins’ decision to abandon the royal line of succession at a fabled program was more surprising than the success he had in his first season at Montlake. But it matters not because the deed was done well. What seemed a reach by athletics director Jen Cohen turned out to be a firm grasp of the circumstances and the need.
The season peaked Feb. 3 with the upset of eventual conference champion Arizona on a buzzer-beater by Dominic Green for a 78-75 triumph. Thereafter the Huskies lost seven of their final 11 to fall out of the unanticipated conversation about making the NCAA tourney field after a six-year absence.
The win over the Wildcats revealed a weakness that helped thwart the tourney bid: An over-reliance on freshman Nowell. The game-winning shot developed out of a bad play call and execution: A clear-out so Nowell could work from the top of the key one-on-one.
Hopkins had gone to the play several times earlier in the season, with success. But defenses became hip, sliding over a second player to help to frustrate Nowell, who led the team in turnovers (83) as well as scoring (16.5 ppg on 45 percent shooting).
This time, UA’s seven-foot center, Deandre Ayton, was waiting and swatted the shot nearly into the University Village parking lot. Green intercepted the sizzler and converted it into one of the most memorable moments in UW hoops history.
Lucky bounce? Sure. Every team gets a few, and UW was in position to exploit it by being tied with the then-14th ranked team in the country.
Bad sign? No. Hopkins may have over-played to a star talent, but he won’t be the last coach so inclined. The key for the future is a of talent balance so a defense can’t cheat.
The problem seems to have had a partial solution this week. Word came this week that the Huskies received a verbal commitment from seven-foot center Bryan Penn-Johnson from Wasatch Academy in Pleasant, UT.
Blessed beyond words to announce my commitment GO DAWGS!!!! 🐺🐺🐺🎒🎒 pic.twitter.com/gxXlMQQjmz
— King BPJ👑 (@the_statement14) March 20, 2018
For whatever these things mean, ESPN ranked Penn-Johnson 85th in its recruiting list for next season, and ninth among centers. Video shows him to be a mobile big guy capable of way more scoring inside than noble but over-matched Sam Timmins, the 6-11 redshirt freshman starter this season.
Whether Nowell thinks he’s NBA-ready isn’t yet known — he isn’t, as anyone including even the late Dr. James Naismith can tell — but Johnson’s arrival with three others who formally committed in the early signing period, suggests that word has traveled fast about Hopkins.
It probably helps that Washington’s name hasn’t surfaced yet in the FBI investigation of big-time college hoops. Since the industry at the top is mostly corrupt, it would be wise to to assume nothing either way.
But if there is no implication, Hopkins is well-positioned to exploit the pending chaos.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has become semi-famous for his post-game, locker-room handstands to celebrate big wins. Hopkins has mastered the instant turn-around. At some point, Huskies’ fans may want to consider planning for a group cartwheel after a win over the Bulldogs.