COLUMBUS, Ohio — For as much as fans thrill to the memorable upset, the NCAA Tournament is filled with many more routine routs of the sort witnessed Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
Tourney seedings expose the many layers of college basketball, even among the 68 teams that are, more or less, the best of the 330-plus outfits eligible to participate in the amusement.
What was learned in this weekend sojourn to the Midwest was how far the Washington Huskies have come and how far they have to go.
In two years, they went from the worst to the best in the Pac-12 Conference. They made the tourney for the first time in eight years, won a game, yet barely drew closer to the national pinnacle, which was represented by the large, swift persons employed by the University of North Carolina, the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed.
“To see how far we’ve come in two years is pretty impressive,” said Matisse Thybulle. “My sophomore year, we were one of the worst, then we won the Pac-12 outright, and won a game in the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t come into this game in awe. We think we’re going to beat them.”
They didn’t. Not close.
The wire-to-wire, 81-59 blasting (box) was no surprise. Carolina led the nation in rebounding margin, and showed why. It had 48 to Washington’s 24 (15-8 offensively). UNC had much experience in finding the soft spots in UW’s famed zone defense. And the Tar Heels’ defense made a Washington weakness, outside shooting, weaker. UW missed 20 of 29 three-point attempts.
None of this was a surprise. The surprise came in getting to this day, the chance to play the best on the big stage, just two years into coach Mike Hopkins’ tenure.
“When you’re building a program, you get a lot through experience,” Hopkins said. “And to be able to win a game (78-61 over Utah State Friday night), to feel it . . . you walk out on that stage, it’s pretty big. I’ve seen it a lot. Our guys haven’t.
“The most important thing was to understand what it takes to get to this level. Then, what it’s going to take to win a national championship.”
The Huskies saw what a serious contender looks like. Smart as they are tough, the Tar Heels knew what to do against the UW zone, a weapon Friday that Utah State coach Craig Smith called “incredible.”
But that was the Mountain West champions going against the Pac-12 champions. That’s a level up. As was UW going up against an Atlantic Coach Conference powerhouse.
The Tar Heels “have played against zones since forever,” said Noah Dickerson, valiant against the many UNC bigs. “They killed us on the glass, and on offense they ran their bigs in a circle in the key, and knew how to box us out. We can’t cover everything, and they would catch balls in the little holes in our zone.”
Perhaps the worst of it was the numerous times the Tar Heels beat Washington down the floor after made baskets. Every time the Huskies looked to rally, Carolina would conjure a momentum-killing breakaway score.
“Make or miss, they’re down the floor,” Dickerson said. “It makes you think about whether to go for the (offensive rebound), because if you don’t get it, I’m three seconds back trying to catch up. They’re fast.”
None of these things are strategic failure by the coaches. It’s pure athleticism. It’s all about getting the biggest and best. Hopkins has had two well-regarded recruiting classes, and that was with little tangible proof that the methods of the first-time head coach worked. Now he has a sort of hoops talisman — a tourney appearance and a win.
He’ll need to do another makeover. He’s losing starting seniors Dickerson, Thybulle and David Crisp, and reserve Dominic Green. He also may lose sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, who led the Huskies with 12 points, to the NBA draft, although nothing has been said publicly.
Is it possible to build a powerhouse at Washington? The answer for the longest time has been no. The farthest they reached in the modern NCAA tourney is the round of 16. Marv Harshman got there in the 1980s, as did Lorenzo Romar in the Aughts.
But Hopkins is a rare dude, a high-energy coach with a clear plan and a charming eccentrism that has endeared him to his players. From all available evidence, trust in him is complete.
Longtime college basketball fans know it is never wise to count long-term on any coach, because scandals, misdeeds and mayhem abound in the industry. You never know whether the guy a coach is talking to is either wearing an FBI wire, or packing unmarked $100 bills in envelopes marked “For Mom.”
But the UW took care of a related problem this week when it gave Hopkins a raise and contract extension, securing his services against predation by the consiglieres of the larger basketball-mafia families.
Thybulle has been practicing with some of the newcomers who have yet to dress for a game. He’s been impressed.
“Hop told us we weren’t going to be rebuilding — we were taking over,” he said. “We have so much talent that didn’t get on the court because or our seniors. U-Dub is going to look different next season and it’s going to be exciting.”
As Hopkins departed the interview podium, he looked back and said to media and staffers, “You haven’t seen the last of us.”
In defeat, the words sounded almost ominous, like something a hopfather might say.