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Sports >  NCAA basketball

UW men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins recovers nicely after player exodus, but questions remain

UPDATED: Mon., May 10, 2021

Washington coach Mike Hopkins looks down as the team falls well behind Stanford late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Seattle.   (Elaine Thompson)
Washington coach Mike Hopkins looks down as the team falls well behind Stanford late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Seattle.  (Elaine Thompson)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

Just when you thought you were out … he pulls you right back in.

A couple months ago, it would have been easy for a University of Washington men’s hoops fan to dismiss coach Mike Hopkins as a Montlake short-timer. Despite the back-to-back Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors he received during his first two seasons at UW, the Huskies have descended into irrelevance at terminal velocity.

Twenty-seven wins in Hopkins’ second season turned into 15 the following year — just five of which came in the Pac-12, where Washington finished last. And that win total turned into just five last season, four of which came in conference, where the Huskies finished second to last.

The recruiting class looked weak. The mass exodus — which included players such as RaeQuan Battle, Marcus Tsohonis, Hameir Wright, Nate Pryor and Erik Stevenson — was alarming. Hope was nothing more than a flicker.

Now? It’s developing into a flame.

Last Tuesday, former Garfield High star Daejon Davis announced he would transfer from Stanford to UW. This came a few days after the Huskies landed power forward Langston Wilson, the country’s No. 2-ranked junior-college prospect. That came a couple weeks after Emmitt Matthews transferred to UW from West Virginia, where he started for the past two seasons. And that came a couple weeks after former Seattle U standout Terrell Brown Jr., who played for Arizona last season, decided to spend his senior year with the Huskies.

In mid-March, the Washington men’s basketball program looked about as fertile as the Mojave — a place you avoided if you wanted to develop or … what’s the word? Win. In early May, though, plenty of fresh seeds have been planted.

The question is: Can Hopkins make them grow?

This isn’t the first time the longtime Syracuse assistant has lured notable talent to Washington. In fact, this incoming crop pales in comparison with that of two years ago, which featured Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, two of the top 10 recruits in the country. That 2019-20 team also had former five-star recruit Quade Green (who, granted, was deemed academically ineligible two games into conference play), yet the Huskies still placed last in conference for the first time since 1991.

Is Hopkins all recruit but no develop? We know he can lure, but can he help players mature?

You’d think those questions would have vanished based on what Hopkins did with Lorenzo Romar’s players when he took over the program in 2017. He took a team that went 9-22 and 2-16 in conference the year before and turned it into a 21-win squad. A year later Hop got 27 wins out of the Huskies, a Pac-12 title and an NCAA tournament win.

The way he utilized Matisse Thybulle — the Pac-12’s all-time steals leader — in the zone defense was sublime. The ball movement on offense was pristine.

But then, something happened. If the Huskies were Patrick Swayze dancing for Hopkins’ first two years, they turned into Chris Farley in his next two.

Talented as McDaniels was, he never proved particularly efficient. In the 2019-20 season, the Huskies shot more threes than all but one Pac-12 men’s team during conference play but had the eighth-highest percentage. The next season they were first in three-point attempts during conference play but again eighth in percentage, 10th in rebounds and last in assists and points allowed.

Their defensive intimidation disappeared. It went from the war zone to the friend zone. Can Hopkins adjust his “D” as opponents have adjusted their means of attacking it?

UW also still seems to be without a reliable spot-up shooter. Can Hopkins fill that void that has plagued the Huskies for two years?

The good news is that there are still copious players available that the Dawgs can acquire to beef up their roster. And we’ve seen that Hopkins and his staff can go out and get them — even after two miserable seasons.

Perhaps the addition of Huskies great Quincy Pondexter to the coaching staff will prove integral in the molding of players. Perhaps Hopkins will rediscover the coaching touch that earned him a contract extension toward the end of his second season.

Perhaps, given the players UW has landed the past couple months, critics were wrong to doubt whether the coach could right this ship. Or perhaps the Huskies will continue their spiral, and by the end of next season fans will say, “Dang, Hop fooled us again.”

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