Any discussion regarding Mike Hopkins’ future with the Washington men’s basketball team undoubtedly includes three divergent topics.
No. 1: During his first two years, the Huskies compiled a 48-22 record (.686), including 25-11 in the Pac-12 while winning the league regular-season title in 2018-19, making trips to the NIT in 2018 and NCAA tournament in 2019 and winning two conference coach of the year awards.
No. 2: Then there’s the past two years, highlighted by an unprecedented first-to-worst decline in the Pac-12 standings that coincided with lengthy losing streaks and a couple of off-court incidents, which resulted in key players missing portions or all of the season. During this span, UW is 20-38, including 9-29 in the Pac-12.
No. 3: And there’s no way to ignore the four years and $12.2 million remaining on Hopkins’ contract, which constitutes the second-largest buyout in the Pac-12.
Some UW fans have drawn parallels between Hopkins and Jody Wynn, the Husky women’s basketball coach who was fired Monday.
They were hired at the same time, but simply put, Wynn didn’t win and produced a woeful 38-75 record during a four-year tenure while Hopkins is still hovering above the .500 line at 68-60.
Furthermore, Wynn is due $700,000, which is far more manageable than Hopkins’ massive buyout.
A more apt comparison is Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak, the Pac-12’s highest paid coach at $3.9 million annually, who was released Tuesday.
Much like Hopkins, Krystkowiak resurrected a Utes program that was in shambles when he arrived 10 years ago. However, Utah has missed the NCAA tournament the past five years.
Still, many believed Krystkowiak was relatively safe considering he had two years remaining on his contract. Utah is on the hook to pay his $6.7 million buyout while in the midst of a $35 million budget deficit within the athletic department due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The costs associated with this termination and the hiring of a new head coach and staff will be fully funded from athletically-generated resources,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said.
During a February interview with The Seattle Times, Washington athletic director Jen Cohen publicly supported Hopkins and said she would evaluate the basketball program after the season.
Sources said Hopkins is expected to make changes to his coaching staff for the first time during his UW tenure. Assistant Cameron Dollar announced his resignation from the program on Wednesday evening.
Every other indication suggests Cohen still believes Hopkins, who she hired in 2017 and awarded a contract extension in 2019, is still the right person to lead the Huskies for now.
In addition to Hopkins’ salary and wildly inconsistent past coaching performances, there are many mitigating factors to consider when accessing the Huskies that we detailed in Part I and Part II of our season review.
There’s the unpredictable nature of this season, which was played during a COVID-19 pandemic that required everyone in college basketball to adapt and adopt a new normal that included frequent coronavirus testing, stringent health protocols, games without fans, social distancing away from the court and postponed games.
Some schools were more harshly affected than others.
The Huskies didn’t win many games on the court, but they were relatively successful in keeping the virus out of the program. According to Hopkins, no UW player tested positive for COVID-19 during the season.
The Huskies had their season-opening tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena canceled due to COVID-19 complications with opponents. Washington also lost its home game against Arizona State and played the Sun Devils twice on the road during a difficult eight-games-in-17-days stretch to end the season.
But even if things were “normal,” it’s difficult to imagine the Huskies (5-21 and 4-16 Pac-12) outperforming their 11th-place finish in the conference.
So where do Hopkins and the Huskies go from here?
While it’s true that it’s easier to fall out of championship contention than it is to build a Pac-12 contender, the fluid nature of college basketball and ever-increasing player mobility among transfers allows struggling programs like UW a chance to recover more quickly than previous years.
A year ago, seldom-used reserves Elijah Hardy and Bryan Penn-Johnson left the Huskies and UW brought in three transfers — Erik Stevenson, Cole Bajema and Nate Pryor.
Expect that trend to continue again this year.
During his final radio coaching show on Monday, Hopkins said he’s giving UW players time away from basketball to focus on finals and suggested that he’ll know next week whether seniors Quade Green and Hameir Wright will return next season. (The NCAA is allowing every student-athlete an extra year of eligibility in response to the pandemic.)
At the moment, Washington has 11 players slated for scholarships next season — two shy of the NCAA limit — including incoming freshman Jackson Grant.
Early reports have the Huskies linked to former Garfield High standout Tari Eason, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward who is leaving Cincinnati.
Hopkins would do well to proceed with caution and avoid the missteps of his predecessor Lorenzo Romar, who made detrimental personnel and philosophical decisions near the end of his 15-year Husky tenure. Romar replaced Washington’s motion offense, a trademark during his first nine years, with an ineffective high-post attack that was incompatible with UW’s personnel.
The Huskies changed recruiting tactics and doggedly pursued, but often failed to land, top-10 ranked recruits such as Terrance Jones and Aaron Gordon, which left UW scrambling to fill a roster.
And Romar made frequent coaching staff changes, including the hiring of Michael Porter Sr. in 2016 in a blatant attempt to land his sons Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter, a pair of highly-touted prospects who did commit to UW.
When asked just before his firing in 2017 about Washington’s downturn, Romar pointed to recruiting miscalculations.
“It kind of started with us taking that calculated risk with the recruiting and it didn’t pan out,” Romar said. “It just seemed like we were climbing uphill. In the midst of all that, I probably tried to take on too much and spread myself thin. And probably allowed slippage in some areas. And we weren’t able to really get it back on track.”