The mystery of Husky basketball
A day or so before the Washington men’s basketball team delivered another dud at Oregon Saturday, the UW athletic director, Jen Cohen, voiced a vote of confidence for Mike Hopkins and his head-scratching tenure. She said his job isn’t in peril, and she looks forward to forging a plan for next year with him.
Regarding Hopkins, really only two things matter now: What kind of record his Huskies register next year, and how much Washington will owe him after it. That’s all.
Hopkins has had one of the more enigmatic four-year debuts in coaching history. He’s had three distinctly different kind of teams. First, there was a cast of competent old heads that he inherited, including Matisse Thybulle, one that Hopkins took to the NCAA tournament in 2019; second, the one-and-done-dominated group of 2020 that went bust, like that kind invariably does at Washington; and this season’s collection of odds and ends that threatens the Pac-12 cellar for the second straight time.
It’s a breathtaking expanse of success and abyss that begs for perspective.
Hopkins was hired in 2017 after the herky-jerky tenure of Lorenzo Romar skidded to a halt with a 9-22 record, and a 2-16 Pac-12 mark. That year, No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz missed significant time down the stretch with an injury.
Hopkins immediately got people’s attention when his first UW team upended No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City, and when it went on to a 21-13 record (10-8 in the league), Hopkins won conference coach-of-the-year honors. The holdovers, including future first-round pick Thybulle, Noah Dickerson and Jaylen Nowell (who had committed under Romar) came together nicely. In 2019, they exploded to a 27-9 record, captured the Pac-12 regular season handily, then won a game in the NCAA tournament, a first for the Huskies in eight years. Again, Hopkins was Pac-12 coach of the year.
A day before that NCAA-tournament victory, Washington announced a six-year, $17.5-million extension for Hopkins.
Actually, the 2020 Isaiah Stewart-Jaden McDaniels team seemed pointed for success until point guard Quade Green turned up academically ineligible. That prompts questions: In an age of considerable academic support for athletes, did Green’s predicament catch the Huskies by surprise? If, in December, he was struggling toward ineligibility, would a sitdown of a few games have helped him regain his footing in class? Where was the backup plan if Green fell out? Surely there must have been a runup to the final reckoning, when the Huskies could have found more minutes for, say, Marcus Tsohonis. Instead, Washington thudded to a last-place finish in the Pac-12, a year after winning the thing.
Now, in the Covid-caused turbulent season of ’20-21, the Huskies are pretty much unwatchable at 3-14 and 2-10. But before it began, the UW was roiled with the news that senior off-guard Naz Carter was leaving the program after a university investigation upheld two students’ allegations of sexual assault.
Green and Carter must take ownership of their business. What they did is on them. But their missteps inevitably reflect on Hopkins and his stewardship of the program, which means any judgment of Hopkins is an equation of more than just wins and losses. Largely, Hopkins seems to have escaped scrutiny in that regard.
Meanwhile, Washington has been bad on offense (No. 125 in KenPom rankings) and worse on defense (216th). Shots get taken without purpose, rhythm or reason. At the other end, playing the zone defense Hopkins borrowed from his Syracuse roots, the Huskies have 10 times given up 80 or more points. At Oregon, the Huskies couldn’t contain the Ducks, who were without leading scorer Chris Duarte — this, two nights after a middling Oregon State team had punked the UW in a 20-point victory.
Through it all, there’s been a perplexing rotation of players who see major minutes one game and then fall completely off the radar the next. Only Cal, apparently, can stay the Huskies from another last-place finish.
Can it be fixed somehow? Jackson Grant, a four-star, 6-9 recruit from Olympia, will provide desperately needed help inside, but the Huskies may require resuscitation from transfers. Their best avenue seems to be the promise of immediate playing time, not contention for anything.
Calls for Hopkins’ job are premature, especially with the Huskies owing him $12.2 million after this season. That drops incrementally in a year, but 2021-22 looms as one in which Washington needs at minimum to generate some positive momentum, to achieve, say, a seventh- or eighth-place finish in the league – something to indicate the program is still vaguely relevant. Anything less is going to ramp the heat from simmering to sizzling under Hopkins.
While the Huskies flail, AD Cohen has drawn mention as a prospect for the vacant Pac-12 commissioner’s job. Indeed, both she and Hopkins are genuinely likable people. But her most visible hire at Washington is Hopkins, and both the hire and the lucrative contract extension are matters of fierce debate.
So the Cohen-to-commissioner thing, I don’t get. But I don’t get a lot of things about Husky basketball.