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Sports >  UW basketball

After reflecting on ‘most difficult season’ of his life, UW men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins ready to turn page with new team

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins speaks during Pac-12 Conference NCAA college basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco.  (Associated Press)
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins speaks during Pac-12 Conference NCAA college basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco. (Associated Press)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Hopkins is standing in the middle of a crossroads that will likely determine his future at the University of Washington.

Heading into his fifth season at the helm of the UW men’s basketball team, Hopkins is facing mounting questions for the first time in what has been a storybook career.

Is he the bombastic and energetic outsider who took over a downtrodden program in 2017 and two years later guided the Huskies to a Pac-12 championship and NCAA tournament appearance?

Or is he the beleaguered coach who failed to maximize the most out of a star-studded team that finished last in the Pac-12 during the 2019-20 season before bottoming out to a dismal 5-21 record and an 11th-place finish last season.

“It’s a fair question,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to win in college sports. The biggest thing is you’ve got to have high standards. You’ve got to have a proven system of winning, which we have.

“If I learned anything this year, I realized that coaching is one element, but then you have to have cohesion and chemistry and things that the great teams have.”

At Pac-12 men’s basketball media day, Hopkins spoke at length publicly Wednesday for the first time since a tumultuous offseason in which eight players left the program, including six transfers.

The mass exodus and biting criticism from former player Hameir Wright who questioned Hopkins’ character was a stunning and surprising rebuke of the 52-year-old coach who was heralded as a Husky savior just two years ago.

“Our biggest thing was having great conversations with these kids and have them understand what our standards are and what we have to do to have a championship level on and off the court,” Hopkins said. “If you want to be a part of it that’s great and if you don’t we’re always going to be there for you. They made their decisions. They’re great kids. I wish them the best and then you got to turn the page. I was more disappointed that I wasn’t able to do a better job for the city and the school.

“I don’t take anything personal. I learned in this business you’re going to get a lot of darts thrown at you. The bottom line is you got to go out there and do the best job you can to build a team and build them as people. We believe that our process has been successful. It’s been proven.”

Still, Hopkins has seemingly liquidated the goodwill compiled during his first two years at UW, which forced him to overhaul the program.

Washington brought in new assistants Quincy Pondexter, the former UW star forward, and Wyking Jones, who coached at California.

Additionally, the Huskies revamped the roster with seven newcomers, including six transfers and four-star freshman forward Jackson Grant from Olympia High.

“We weren’t what we needed to be to play at the level we want to compete at,” Hopkins said. “We got a new group. I’m excited about the new group.”

Four transfers with Seattle ties include senior guards Daejon Davis, Terrell Brown Jr., PJ Fuller and forward Emmitt Matthews Jr.

“Right when we met everybody and we all got together, it just clicked immediately,” said senior guard Jamal Bey. “It was easy to do stuff with people where you don’t have to worry about if someone doesn’t like this person. Everyone likes each other and everyone was cool.”

Bey and senior forward Nate Roberts are co-captains and the only holdovers from the 2018-19 season when Washington finished 27-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride for sure,” said Roberts who was a redshirt freshman during the 2018-19 season. “Coming in as a freshman everything was hot. Just going to March Madness and then going through the ups and downs, it’s an experience. But that’s why you play college basketball.

“The perspective I have now is invaluable. Just knowing what winning basketball looks like and also experiencing losing, and I know what we can’t do.”

Hopkins spent the summer reflecting on what he called “the most difficult season” of my life and he’s done with the introspection.

“It’s good to look at the past, but I’m looking at the future,” he said. “Yes, I’ll learn from it. Move forward and use the lessons to elevate you. I know I’m not the best coach in the world, but I want to be the best coach in the world, and you have to learn through these experiences.

“I feel like I’ve been able to move forward and do a better job. I got a new staff. Got new energy. And I’m excited about that. I’ve got a talented team. They’ve got experience and they’ve got talent. Now it goes back to learning that system. We’ve got a way to go, but (I’m) really, really excited about that.”

During a 30-minute interview, Hopkins said “excited” or some version of the word more than a dozen times, which in some ways expresses the optimism he feels about a team with so many uncertain variables.

For instance, it remains to be seen if a team with seven newcomers and five returners can find any sort of chemistry before UW’s Nov. 9 season opener against Northern Illinois.

Admittedly, Hopkins is still trying to forge the Huskies’ offensive identity and the defense remains a bit of a mystery even though he’s committed to the 2-3 zone.

“It’s what we do, but with our personnel we’re going to be able to be creative with how we play,” Hopkins said. “We got some defensive-minded kids that were exceptional with their previous teams playing a different system. … Our system is our zone, but there’s different ways where we can be aggressive that give us an advantage.”

The uncertainties surrounding Washington and the lack of obvious NBA talent were the primary reasons why the Huskies were picked 11th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

“I’d by lying if I said there’s not a chip on the shoulder, but we know we got to go prove ourselves,” Hopkins said. “It doesn’t matter about preseason rankings. We’re only concerned about postseason rankings.”

At various times Wednesday, Hopkins bristled at the descriptions media members used to categorize the Huskies.

“Our expectations haven’t changed,” he said. “A lot of people like to say when we’re ranked in the preseason where we are, somebody used the word rebuilding. Look, we ain’t rebuilding.

“We’re fortunate with the transfer portal and like a lot of programs being able to utilize it and give us some guys who have competed at the highest level and started in Power 5 conferences. A lot of the guys coming in have a lot of pride for the city and what it means to represent Washington and the city of Seattle.”

The Huskies might not be rebuilding, but UW is a team in transition.

And there’s no denying Hopkins, who is in the third year of a six-year, $17.5 million deal, is feeling the heat from a disgruntled fan base for the first time in his career.

“I’m smart enough to know our job is we got to have a standard to win,” said Hopkins, who after this season is guaranteed $9.3 million on a deal that expires in 2025. “Our expectations is to be in the top half of the league every year and have a chance to win a championship. That’s what it’s about.

“People talk about rebuild. We’re not rebuilding. We’re just not. We got a really good team that has a lot of experience. We’re excited to coach them. I know I have a great boss. I know I work for a great institution and I’m want to give them something that they’re proud of.”

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