Pulling off one of college basketball’s biggest turnarounds this season didn’t go unnoticed Monday when Mike Hopkins was named the John R. Wooden Coach of the Year by the Pac-12 Conference.
Hopkins led UW to a 20-11 overall record and a 10-8 showing in Pac-12 play. His 20 wins are tied for the third-most by a Huskies coach in their first season. The record is held by Tippy Dye, who won 24 games during the 1950-51 campaign.
This is the seventh time in school history a coach has won the award and its the first since 2012. It’s also the second-most Coach of the Year wins by a Pac-12 program. Only Arizona — which has won it on 10 occasions — has more victories than UW.
“He turned what we used to know and turned us into something new, totally different,” Huskies junior forward Noah Dickerson said of Hopkins. “It took us a little while but we finally bought in and at this point, we’re 20-11. I don’t remember the last time we won this many games in a season. Twenty games is a lot of games.”
Hopkins also becomes the first coach since Washington State’s Tony Bennett to be named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in his first season. Bennett, who is now at Virginia, led the Cougars to a 26-8 record and the NCAA Tournament during the 2006-07 campaign.
Hopkins won the award after quickly restoring one of the sport’s legacy programs in one season. UW began the 2017-18 campaign with more than 1,730 victories in its history and is in the Top 20 in terms of all-time wins. But the Huskies were coming off one of the worst years in recent memory after finishing 9-22 overall while winning only two Pac-12 games last season.
UW’s administration fired coach Lorenzo Romar after 15 seasons while star point guard Markelle Fultz left school after one year and was taken first by the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Draft. The school announced it hired Hopkins, a longtime Syracuse assistant, days after firing Romar.
The school signed Hopkins, who was named Syracuse’s coach-in-waiting, to a six-year deal worth $12.3 million.
Hopkins immediately worked to rebuild the Huskies by keeping assistant and former UW star point guard Will Conroy on his staff. Cameron Dollar, a former UW assistant, returned to Montlake after he was let go from Seattle University following an eight-year stint. Hopkins also added former UNLV coach and Nevada assistant Dave Rice to his coaching staff.
They simultaneously worked to reconstruct UW’s 2017 recruiting class and keep the team’s core in tact. Four-star guard Jaylen Nowell was the only member of UW’s original signing class under Romar who stayed with the Huskies. UW also signed guard Michael Carter III plus guard Nahziah Carter and forward Hameir Wright. Carter and Wright, who are both from New York, knew Hopkins from his time at Syracuse.
Returning veterans like juniors David Crisp, Noah Dickerson, Dominic Green and Matisse Thybulle also stayed to give the Huskies an experienced base to go with its incoming talent going into Hopkins’ first season.
Still, the Huskies were picked to finish 10th in the preseason Pac-12 rankings.
UW opened 3-0 but lost two straight in The 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Huskies would run their non-conference record to 10-3 with the most signature win being a upset in early December over then-No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City, Mo. Those victories alone already more than UW had last season.
Washington’s profile continued to rise when it started with a 4-1 record in Pac-12 play. UW, after losing two straight, went on a four-game winning streak. It started with at Colorado followed by a victory over in-state rival Washington State. UW continued by beating then-No. 25 Arizona State and upset then-No. 9 Arizona when Green hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Soon Hopkins and the Huskies were being discussed for a number of reasons. From his eccentric stories about a late-night hang out with rap star Meek Mill to speaking Spanish in press conferences to having his players watch movies for motivation, it made Hopkins a popular figure.
There was even growing chatter about Hopkins potentially winning the league’s Coach of the Year award.
Above all, there was talk the Huskies could reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than five seasons.
UW would then endured a three-game losing streak and finished the rest of conference play with a 3-2 mark.
It was good enough for the UW to earn the No. 7 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. UW will open Wednesday against Oregon State.
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark