When the pandemic began almost a year ago, the University of Washington had a big but bad team. Even a pair of eventual first-round NBA draft picks up front couldn’t prevent the Huskies from finishing last in the Pac-12 Conference.
So how did fourth-year coach Mike Hopkins fix this?
Hopkins watched four big men go out the door – Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, both 6-foot-9, to the pros, 6-11 Sam Timmons to graduation and 7-1 Bryan Penn-Johnson to the transfer portal – and no post players of substance coming back.
He also lost 6-6 guard Nahziah Carter, his top returning scorer (12.2 ppg), when the school parted ways with the nephew of entertainer Jay-Z once multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him.
The perpetually upbeat coach now had a smaller, inept group of Huskies. A Pac-12 cellar dweller at times. Actually, a team staring at epic failure.
As UW (4-16 overall, 3-12 league) prepares to host Stanford (13-8, 9-6) Thursday night (8 p.m. FS1), it likely has five games left and retains a realistic chance of finishing as one of the worst teams in school history.
That covers 119 Huskies seasons in a century and a quarter, more than 3,000 games.
Four teams have had 20 losses in a season. The low bar was coach Bob Bender’s first outfit in 1993-94 that staggered to 5-22. Bender also had back-to-back 10-20 teams six and seven years later, which led to him getting fired. In 2016-17, Lorenzo Romar had a 9-22 campaign, and was let go after 15 seasons, replaced by Hopkins.
The thing is, as he began to put his current collection of players together, Hopkins refused to see it coming.
“We feel good about our guys,” said the coach, when quizzed about his lack of manpower in September. “We have plenty of players. We have enough, for sure. We have a lot of belief in a lot of guys.”
He put his trust in 6-9 senior Hameir Wright and 6-11 sophomore Nate Roberts, players of limited offensive skills, to help turn things around up front. Wright averages 5.8 points a game and shoots a tepid 24 percent (18 of 75) from 3-point range; Roberts scores at a 5.4 clip and doesn’t have any perceptible field-goal range beyond five feet.
Hopkins took a big risk: He recruited no high school players who would have played this season.
Instead, he turned to a bunch of transfers acquired over multiple seasons: Kentucky guard Quade Green, who put the UW into an unrecoverable tailspin in 2020 by becoming academically ineligible; Wichita State guard Erik Stevenson, a starter who often struggles with his shooting (34.8 percent); 6-9 forward J’Raan Brooks, a big-man replacement from USC who’s started once and appeared in barely half the games; and Michigan’s Cole Bajema, a 6-7 shooting guard with promise who averages two points and hasn’t started yet.
Green is the Huskies’ leading scorer (15.3 ppg), but would make this team better if he focused more on playmaking (3.5 assists per game). At his size, the 6-footer won’t make it in the NBA unless he does.
“That’s pretty much been a problem all year,” he said. “That’s been on me really, poor point-guard skills, turning the ball over way too much.”
Actually, the biggest drawback for a team that has untold issues is rebounding. These smaller, softer Huskies get eaten alive, losing the backboard battle 39.8 to 30.4 on a nightly basis. They rank 333rd among the nation’s 340 teams in this hustle category.
Looking for positives, start with Marcus Tsohonis, normally a reserve guard but twice an emergency starter, who amazingly has posted games of 22, 22, 24, 27 and 29 points in both roles; 6-6 junior starting guard Jamal Bey, who leads the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting by a wide margin at 53.1 percent (26 of 49); and 7-4 sophomore Riley Sorn, a walk-on who shares the distinction as college basketball’s tallest player with Matt Van Komen of St. Mary’s.
Tsohonis is an unconventional player and a highly creative scorer who hasn’t always gotten minutes. He was held out of three games early for no discernible reason. He’s started twice, including Monday at WSU, which UW won, 65-63, with his last-second shot. He’s UW’s second-leading scorer at 10.9 ppg and one of its better marksmen at 48.5 percent. Still, he usually sits when the game begins, starting in Pullman only because Green sat out ill.
Bey is one of four Huskies who have scored 26 points or more this season, but he still isn’t assertive enough.
Sorn, who pulls 10.5 minutes per game, needs another 20 pounds and a lot more stamina and court awareness to be more than a fill-in. It’s on the coaches to see if they can develop this towering resource into someone who can influence outcomes.
Last season, the Huskies lost 13 of their final 17 games. Now it’s 30 of their last 38 overlapping two seasons. Yet Hopkins’ job doesn’t appear in jeopardy.
He was athletics director Jennifer Cohen’s first big hire. He was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in each of his first two seasons. Cohen surely isn’t going to turn him away during a pandemic-disrupted season. She recently gave him a public vote of confidence.
Meantime, Hopkins has been yanking under-performing players out of games earlier, and with more frequency. He was even seen grabbing Stevenson by the head with two hands and for a passionate pep talk after removing him 20 seconds after tipoff against UCLA.
The longtime Syracuse University assistant coach prefers to ignore the possibility that anyone might be displeased with him and the direction of his program over the past two seasons, and that it might not be fixable.
“It hasn’t been the greatest season by any stretch of the imagination, but the kids have stayed resilient, stayed positive and stayed tough,” Hopkins said Monday night after the season’s fourth win. “The most important thing is we’re growing together.”
For the sake of his longevity, the Husky coach might want to re-prioritize and find a couple of big men who can score and rebound. That’s the most important thing here. If not, growing together won’t matter.
More of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Dan Raley’s work can be found here at si.com/maven
The Huskies have been a technically poor defensive rebounding team ever since Bender was fired (with the exception of Jon Brockman who consistently used his undersized body to get in great rebounding position). Everything else after Bender became a “jumping contest” among athletes while they were running to the rim (ceding defensive rebounding territory). Romar’s teams typically had better athletes than the opposition, so they were still a statistically adequate rebounding team; Hopkins began the same way, but is now largely devoid of superior athletes….so non-existent anticipation and technique become even more important.
Flaws (fatal?) that I see with a Hopkins’ coached team:
1.) No defensive rebounding technique. None.
2.) No crisp execution of an early or half court offense.
3.) No crisp execution of endline out of bounds plays or sideline out of bounds plays.
4.) No ability to adapt defensively due to stubbornness of 2-3 zone.
-no ability to zone or man press
-no ability to play half court man
-no ability to play an extended zone (traps) that retreats back to man or zone.
-no ability to keep an offense on their heels by mixing or disguising defenses.
I loathe the University of Oregon, but Dana Altman is the best head coach in the conference and it’s not particularly close because his teams can do a of the above every season. Maybe Cohen can look to hire someone from that coaching tree next time?
Hop’s ways were OK the first two years. Talent helps.
But in the absence of talent, coaching wins a few games, Points taken.
Thybulle was THE perfect defensive point of the spear in a 2-3 zone (that often looks like a 1-1-3 zone as the ball comes across half court). He, and Nowell, erased a lot of defensive mistakes elsewhere.
I’ll also retract my previous statement a bit by saying that Isiah Stewart was a tremendous rebounder at both ends last year as a freshman. Watching him live at a venue while away from the ball…it was obvious that he was anticipating movement and shots while continually working for position underneath. He was impressive last season.
Thybulle’s ability to influence an offense without being 7 feet was remarkable. Saw it in the pros only with Bobby Jones.
Good of you to acknowledge Stewart.
I always thought Thybulle was a poor man’s DJ.
Great Bobby Jones pull.
In a Sonics FB group we were discussing how during his 3rd season Derrick McKey suddenly became overly team orientated. He stopped looking to score and focused on defense and passing and we decided he became more like Jones in his Philly days. Taking that into mind I’d have loved to have had Derrick when the Sonics went to the Finals and rotate him, GP and Nate on Jordan. A 6th man role might have been ideal for him.
Not a bad idea. But a healthy Nate would have been better.
Stewart was a tremendous rebounder. Brockman was 6-7 245….I would not call that undersized.
I mentioned Stewart below and I agree.
6’7″, even if thick, is undersized to be a dominant rebounder in college….which Brockman was. He was always in great defensive and offensive rebounding position…and if he wasn’t, he would usually out hustle the opposition to the ball if given even a slight opportunity.
Brockman was one of my favorite Huskies to watch.
You can talk about yellow and you can talk about rose, Buddy Buddy, but don’t you talk about the Ducks!
Hey, he complimented Altman, as he should. Although he’s had more than his share of dubious characters.
Is Riley Sorn a vegetarian? If not, here’s a starter kit for a daily diet. Ribeye steak and eggs with extra crispy hashbrowns for breakfast. Tuna melt with Bacon slabs and a side of cottage cheese for lunch and a porterhouse steak with Baked Potatoes and chef salad with Blue Cheese dressing for dinner. When in the film room, look up “Kareem Abdul Jabbar” and check out the sky hook. This time next year the huskies are champs.
Anyone 7-4 is spread too thin. But Manute Bol had a nice little career in the NBA. I don’t think he can eat enough in his UW career to be what you want.
Romar could recruit and build a team, but couldn’t coach them. Hopkins can coach, but seems to not be able to build a team. Hire Romar as the first college hoops GM? ::sigh::
Jeez, you want a coach who does it all, don’t you? I recommend the ACC. They’re better cheaters too.
Romar is 84-86 at Pepperdine, and currently on a win streak.
He can coach and his record shows it.
Romar “couldn’t coach them”?
Wow! Isn’t he second all-time in UW wins?
When Hopkins speaks of his team, he reminds me of a Scott Servais post game press conference– “You know (Pitcher X) looked pretty good out there for the first two innings. He had a live fastball and good movement. And then he had a bit of a command struggle that resulted in that eight run third. But, we saw some things we liked from him.” I have been watching Husky hoops for around 60 years, and this is the worst team that I have ever seen. Tsohonis is wild and undisciplined, but can somehow find the basket. Having watched Bajema in high school, I though he would become a solid contributor, and maybe he still will. Or, maybe he’ll transfer (again) to Western Washington.
Nearly all coaches talk like that, especially regarding college kids. Don’t expect candor with big-time college coaches.
It is a bad team. Dan’s story makes the key points: No bigs, and Green is a shooter, not a point.
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If the team doesn’t have at least a winning season next year the alumni will start grumbling. They’ll realize that Coach Hop won largely with Coach Romar’s players and despite having highly regarded recruiting the team is under-performing now. But the inconsistency of the basketball program, and I would put the women’s program in this as well, has to be looked at hard. The coaches change at a 2 per decade rate and get some of the best players but rare is the time they go to the Sweet Sixteen or further and a losing season is disappointing but not necessarily surprising. The UW Athletic Program practices trickle down economics. They pour all their support into the football program and expect/hope the effect will trickle down to the other sports. The results have been mixed. Coach Hop has an outstanding resume. But so did Andy Russo, Lynn Nance, Bob Bender and Lorenzo Romar. UW used to be the school that Washington basketball players aspired to play for, now it’s Gonzaga without question. Marv Harshman would be shaking his head at that notion. To think that for a few hours in 2002 Dan Monson was the head coach before backing out. But he’d probably be fired by now.
Texas and Stanford have the best athletic programs and the most well rounded. IMO those are the programs that UW should emulate. If they built in that the direction that could create an overall winning culture and trickle over to the other sports. Got nothing to lose and everything to gain. And as I type this I’m watching Stanford just toy with the Dawgs.
I’ve never heard the trickle-down theory applied to athletic dept budgets. I think by definition all schools with big-time football have to feed that beast. More football success creates the revs to help sustain non-rev sports. It’s become a terrible system, but it’s not confined to UW.
Harsh’s time was long ago, and the game itself, its business model and the world have changed. UW’s hoops fortunes have ebbed and flowed, but like most schools, turn on the dynamism of the head coach. Gonzaga’s rise is a perfect storm of right school/time/person, no football program, a weak conference, and a medium-sized city with no other sports. But it’s a one-off, an outlier.
Texas has annual revs of $220M, UW $140M. As a private school, Stanford’s budget is unknown, but it is high because of wealthy elite donors who help fund individual sports. For its level of funding, UW sports overall have had a lot of success. Once UW realized the hoops program’s level of cheating to win had passed by Romar (see FBI raid on Arizona), they fired him and hired a guy who was coach of the year in his first two seasons.
I’ve always thought if Coach Harshman went to a more established program that was more dedicated to basketball he’d have had more success. I’m assuming when you say level of cheating you mean at UW or in NCAA basketball overall? I believe in Coach Hop but have concerns after two seasons of under performing there is a general malaise over the men’s basketball program that has always been there in varying degrees.
As I mentioned, college basketball typically turns on the dynamism of the head coach. Harsh in his day was in command the way Coach K has been at Duke, and Lute Olson at AZ.
And Duke is helped by all the premier competition in North Carolina, where, like in Indiana, the hoops culture was deeply imbedded. It’s just not like that on the West Coast. John Wooden was a one-off.
Gonzaga has to win a few NCAA championships – maybe even against the heavyweights that have already accomplished that – rather than beat up the weak conference competition every year on their way to 20-win seasons if they’re to really deserve the “powerhouse” label that the locals think they deserve.
Remember, Duke didn’t gain that status until after 2 titles in the early-‘90’s, which came after a title game loss in ‘86, and a Final Four Semis loss in ‘89, and another title game loss the following year.
The Zags are good enough to beat the teams in front of them, sure, but they aren’t facing the same level of competition on their way up the ladder as the Blue Devils were when they were in the same spot 30 years ago.
IMO Duke was an emerging powerhouse before Coach K got there. They were the NCAA runner up in ‘78 and had players like Tate Armstrong, Gene Banks, Jim Sparnarkel and Mike Gminski go through their program. No mean feat to do when you have the Tar Heels, Wolf Pack and Demon Deacons in the same state.
They were “emerging” before Coach K, but, took a few steps back upon his arrival, remember? And, I don’t think they could’ve been described as a “powerhouse” until the 1990’s, due largely to ace recruiting that has benefitted the programme ever since. GU won’t ever reach that level until they win championships…which won’t come without the recruits that likely still prefer a Duke because of the level of competition they face. Duke basically doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting with regards to recruiting. Their track record speaks for itself. Whereas, I believe the jury’s still out on GU largely because of where/who they play in Conference, and because we’ve not seen them in the winners circle at the end of the NCAA tournament.
Hop has an answer. His recruiting roots in Rochester are incredibly deep. It’s his ace in the hole. He’s been tracking his current star prospect since he was in pre-school, and now he’s already in the sixth grade. Be patient. Trust the system.
Big in Ithaca, too.