The autopsy on a Washington men’s basketball season that ranks among the worst in Pac-12 history is still incomplete.
Mike Hopkins couldn’t provide a detailed analysis on everything that went wrong for the Huskies after Wednesday’s 98-95 defeat against Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
“Obviously, we were disappointed with our record,” Hopkins said. “That’s not where we want to be, and there’s got to be some improvements. But these are things that we’ll be talking about, working through.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around following a 5-21 season and an 11th place Pac-12 finish at 4-16. UW’s .192 winning percentage is the fifth lowest in conference history since the 1968-69 season.
What went so horribly wrong for the Huskies?
We’ll dive into a six-pack of reasons that examines Washington’s misgivings and shortcomings.
1. Gross miscalculations on offensive and defensive schemes
Due to the personnel, Hopkins changed the offense from a low-post attack to a perimeter-oriented scheme in which he envisioned UW attempting 25-30 three-pointers per game.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, they shot just 33.2% behind the arc, which ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and was the second lowest three-point percentage in school history in the past 20 years.
Making matters worse, Washington didn’t have a true playmaker to run the offense and ranked last in the league with 10.8 assists per game.
So in essence, the Huskies were a bad jump-shooting team that played one-on-one ball and rarely got the line while ranking last in the Pac-12 with 15.3 free throw attempts per game.
As bad as all of that sounds, the defensive woes were far more troubling.
Hopkins is an ardent 2-3 zone apostle, but for the second straight season the Huskies’ inability to effectively operate his favorite defense forced him to tinker, tweak and ultimately switch to a new scheme midway during the season.
In January, Washington adopted a matchup zone, a complex scheme in which players start each possession in a zone before switching to man-to-man principles. The change helped UW combat its rebounding issues and was credited for back-to-back wins against Colorado and Utah.
Eventually, UW opponents made adjustments and Hopkins ran out of countermoves.
The Huskies allowed a league-worst 78.6 points, including an 11-game stretch when opponents scored at least 77 points.
Washington’s minus-10.1 point differential is the lowest in the history of the program.
2. Lack of player development
In fairness to Hopkins and his staff, it’s difficult to assess player development during a pandemic-stricken season, which throws almost everything out of whack.
Still, it’s impossible to identify a Husky who was with the team in 2019-20, who made a noticeable improvement this season aside from Jamal Bey.
The 6-foot-6 junior guard was an afterthought in the offense last season while averaging 5.7 points and shooting 25.7% on three-pointers. He developed into a reliable scoring threat who led the Pac-12 in three-point percentage (50.7%) and averaged 10.3 points per game.
Seniors Quade Green (15.4 ppg. and 3.6 assists per game) and Hameir Wright (6.2 ppg. and 4.1 rebounds per game) didn’t necessarily exceed expectations.
Sophomore guard Marcus Tsohonis (10.4 ppg.), redshirt sophomore forward Nate Roberts (5.2 ppg. and 5.7 rpg.) and sophomore center Riley Sorn (3.1 ppg. and 2.5 rpg.) made minimal gains due to increased playing time.
And sophomore guard RaeQuan Battle (4.6 ppg.) seemingly regressed and played in just five of the last 17 games of the season.
3. Recruiting blunders and an overreliance on transfers
Hopkins hit a recruiting home run in 2019 while landing a top-10 nationally ranked class that included McDonald All-Americans Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.
Last year the Huskies failed to bring in a high-school recruit — freshman point guard Dominiq Penn was a rare midseason addition — and used scholarships on a trio of transfers (Erik Stevenson, Cole Bajema and Nate Pryor) with hometown connections.
Stevenson had the biggest impact while averaging 9.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, but it took him 10 games to crack double-digit scoring and find his footing among a quartet of guards that included Green, Bey and Tsohonis.
Once he got comfortable, Stevenson scored at least 11 points in 12 of the final 17 games, but his 29.8% three-point shooting is cause for concern considering he led the team with 124 attempts behind the arc.
Pryor played early in the season and started three games before his minutes and production diminished while Bajema overcame a slow start and essentially replaced Battle in the rotation midway in the season.
Whatever spark they provided at times was negligible in the grand scheme of things.
4. Lack of size and depth on the front line
This might be the main reason for Washington’s demise.
Inexplicably, Hopkins watched four big men (Stewart, McDaniels, Sam Timmins and Bryan Penn-Johnson) leave the team last year via early departures, graduation and transfer and replaced all of that departing talent with 6-foot-9 junior foward J’Raan Brooks, who averaged just 2.0 points and 1.3 rebounds in 2018-19 at USC before transferring to Washington and sitting out last season.
Instead, Hopkins relied on a sorely outmanned front-line comprised of Wright, Roberts, Sorn and Brooks, which he frequently referred to as “a lightweight fighting a heavyweight.”
Predictably, the Huskies were pummeled in the paint. UW ranked 11th in the Pac-12 with a minus 7.7 rebounding differential. Wright, who had a league-leading six disqualifications, and Roberts topped the conference with 87 and 82 fouls, respectively.
On the offensive end, Washington’s relatively diminutive frontline provided very little inside game. Roberts displayed glimpses of effectiveness, but Tsohonis was UW’s most consistent low-post option.
5. Losing Nahziah Carter
Before the season, the Huskies suspended Carter, and he left the team in December after a school investigation upheld two allegations against him for sexual assault from UW students.
It was a major embarrassment for Washington.
On the court, Carter, who averaged 12.2 points and 4.9 rebounds, would have helped a Husky team devoid of explosive perimeter players. The 6-6 senior guard was a highflying dunk artist and considered a top-100 NBA draft prospect.
6. Poor scheduling
In hindsight, Hopkins regrets hastily arranging a marquee matchup against Big 12 powerhouse Baylor in Las Vegas after Washington’s season-opening four-team tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena was scrubbed due to COVID-19 issues with opponents.
Two days after the 82-56 defeat against the No. 2-ranked Bears, Hopkins blundered again and lined up a nonconference game against UC Riverside in Las Vegas two days before a Pac-12 opener at Utah.
Citing fatigue, Washington was blown out in both games and began the season 0-3, which proved to be a harbinger of a season filled with lopsided losses.
“Usually in the preseason you have a normal training camp and then you have some exhibition games to kind of see where you’re at,” Hopkins said. “Our exhibition game was against Baylor. You never know what that’s going to do and that was a bad calculation on my part.”
Washington was able to thoroughly dominate Seattle University 73-41 before suffering an embarrassing 66-58 defeat to Montana.
“Losing the games in the beginning and building confidence I think was a huge thing,” Hopkins said. “That was my mistake.
“We weren’t playing well early and building that confidence early would have been a good thing. I didn’t do a good job scheduling that way.”
[In Part II of our season review, we’ll take a look at what Washington needs to do to fix its problems.]