Lately, Washington is reminding head coach Mike Hopkins of what feels like a different team: The non-conference version of the Huskies.
It’s not that UW was necessarily bad during that time. The Huskies dropped four games during the non-conference schedule, but the losses all came against quality teams in No. 22 Auburn, No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 16 Virginia Tech and Minnesota.
But some of the issues UW faced during the early portion of the season are resurfacing now. The Huskies are starting slow again — they fell behind Oregon by 16 points in the first half of Saturday’s loss — and their shooting is sporadic. UW started 13-1 in Pac-12 play, averaging 71 points on 47.7 percent shooting from the field. In the last four games, which included losses to Cal and Oregon, the Huskies have averaged 64.5 points on 44.2 percent shooting.
Perhaps most concerning is the drop in their defensive intensity. UW held its first 14 Pac-12 opponents to 60.9 points on 42.5 percent shooting. In the Huskies’ last four games, teams have averaged 67 points on 46.2 percent shooting.
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“You have to play with a sense of urgency and play great defense,” Hopkins said Tuesday. “That’s been a synonymous thing with us. When we’re playing well and we’re playing very well, our defense has been at a high level. And when we’re assisting and making shots. It sounds so simple, but it really isn’t. “
As the No. 1 seed, UW received a bye through the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. It will open against No. 8 USC at noon on Thursday in Las Vegas.
“We got the Pac-12 tournament. I know we’re going to be ready when we get down there,” senior Matisse Thybulle said after the loss to the Ducks. “We got an opportunity to win. We got to put this one behind us and move on.”
Hopkins is hoping the start of the postseason will help the Huskies recalibrate, much like they did at the beginning of Pac-12 play. UW seemed to flip a switch when the conference season started, winning its first 10 games in the midst of a 12-game winning streak.
That stretch, Hopkins said, is when the Huskies were elite. The key now is finding that same energy again.
“Going through the season, you have season one, you have non-conference,” Hopkins said. “We tried to play this schedule that’s going to challenge us. … We felt that that schedule would help us going into the conference and it did. We won record games in a row, which is really hard to do. We won 15 games, which is incredible. Great accomplishment.
“Now we’re going to Pac-12 tournament. Hopefully those experiences have gotten us to the point where we can go and reference when we’re at our best, this is what we do.”
For UW to play its best, Hopkins said, the Huskies have to keep a chip on their shoulder. That’s something both Hopkins and his players have been preaching since before the season started.
But when you cruise to a regular season conference championship, clinching the title with a week left tot play, it can be difficult to keep that chip in place. That likely played a role in the Huskies going 2-2 down the stretch and playing one of their worst halves of the year in the home loss to Oregon.
Because of that slide, Hopkins said, they have something to prove again.
“Conference champions, that’s over,” Hopkins said. “This is a new season. This is the third part. It’s 0-0. That’s why they call it March Madness. There’s upsets, there’s teams, there’s so much great drama and competition. It’s just another great opportunity.
“We want to play good basketball. That’s the bottom line. We got a really good team that for a long period of time has been playing great. We need to get back to that.”