First-year Huskies basketball coach Mike Hopkins needed only nine games to do what nobody expected him to do at Washington.
Calling an early-season contest “historic” sounds like an overstatement, but how else to describe the Huskies’ 74-65 upset of Kansas on Wednesday night? What word better describes 22-point underdogs traveling halfway across the country to face college basketball’s No. 2-ranked team, playing on what amounted to its home floor, and beating its brains out?
True confession: Although I’ve been impressed with Hopkins from the moment he was introduced as Lorenzo Romar’s successor, I figured he’d be fortunate to approach a double-digit victory total. A Pac-12 preseason media poll projected the Huskies to finish 10th in the conference. Tenth out of 12? That sounded about right.
The talent pipeline Romar had assembled at Washington, where first-round NBA draft choices came and went so fast we barely came to recognize them, was ruptured when athletic director Jen Cohen fired Romar. It left Hopkins with a roster full of players whose best hope was to overachieve – not exactly a UW tradition in recent years.
While most of the Huskies’ acclaimed 2017 recruiting class was arranging to renounce scholarships Romar had offered, Hopkins didn’t beg for the likes of Michael Porter Jr., Blake Harris, Daejon Davis and Mamadou Diarra to stick around and see how some longtime Syracuse assistant coach might change things.
“We’re going to do our best job at keeping these guys intact,” Hopkins said on Day One, “but I’ll tell you this: We want people that have two feet in in terms of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to build. That’s the important thing.”
Hopkins presented himself well over the ensuing months, accentuating the positive and staying on message, but a new coach can only accomplish so much upon inheriting a team that has lost 22 of its last 26 regular-season Pac-12 games. Establishing some continuity while preventing a mutiny appeared to be an attainable goal.
Hopkins was aiming a bit higher. He saw the Kansas Jayhawks as the ultimate challenge on the nonconference schedule and implemented an imaginative game plan – again, not exactly a UW tradition in recent years.
Relying on a few old friends, Hopkins consulted with Gerry McNamara and Allen Griffin, Syracuse assistants who last week watched Kansas shoot lights-out behind the three-point line in a 76-60 thrashing of the Orange.
Extending the Huskies’ 2-3 zone defense to contain the Jayhawks from long range, Hopkins surmised, could give them a puncher’s chance. The strategy involved some risk, as the zone extension would give Kansas’ Lagerald Vick a succession of open shots out of the high post.
“If he scores 50 points by scoring twos,” Hopkins reasoned, “that’s what we’re going to go with.”
Vick scored a career-high 28 points, not enough to mitigate the poor shooting of Kansas’ two most accomplished outside threats, Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk. They combined for a 3-of-13 night behind the arc.
The Huskies, meanwhile, ran a patient offense that emphasized putting teammates in position for open looks. It made for this kind of balanced attack: Matisse Thybulle with 19 points, Jaylen Nowell with 17 points and Noah Dickerson with 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Dickerson, a 6-foot-8 junior from Atlanta, has become a particular interior force. After producing decent numbers last season – 12.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game – he’s now a legitimate hoss with a knack for drawing fouls.
On the stat sheet, or during pregame warmups, Washington isn’t going to intimidate anybody. The Huskies clearly didn’t scare the Jayhawks, who cut their 52-44 deficit in the second half to 53-52 with 9 1/2 minutes remaining.
Kansas would assert itself against an inferior opponent because Kansas always asserts itself against inferior opponents. Just not on Wednesday. Hopkins called a timeout after the Jayhawks got within a point, the Huskies returned from the bench with resolve, and issue never again was in doubt.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, after a six-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, basketball has reawakened at Washington. The Sunday afternoon home game against Gonzaga, which not so long ago shaped up as a ho-hum Zags victory, is looming as an intense, blast-from-the past intrastate collision.
Credit for the revival goes to Mike Hopkins, the new coach whose first priority was to secure players who put two feet in the wet concrete, little knowing they’d make history.