Over the course of a year, the Washington men’s basketball team stumbled from the top spot in the Pac-12 regular-season standings in 2019 to a last-place finish in 2020.
The unprecedented first-to-worst descent continued this season, which resulted in a miserable 5-21 disaster and 11th place in the conference at 4-16 that was marked by record-setting futility, more than a dozen lopsided losses and a handful of heartbreaking last-minute defeats.
The Huskies’ fall from grace was swift, stunning and in many ways epically spectacular like a beautiful handcrafted porcelain vase tumbling down a wooden staircase before hitting the ground and smashing into tiny little pieces.
The question for coach Mike Hopkins is if there’s anything that’s salvageable from a team that couldn’t shoot straight, defend without fouling, rebound, protect the paint, take care of the ball, establish an on-court leader and avoid off-court troubles as we detailed in Part I of our season review.
Keep in mind, rebuilding a Pac-12 title contender is much harder than falling out of relevancy, but we’ll take a look at how Washington can fix its multitude of problems during the offseason.
It should be noted that for the sake of this examination, we’re assuming every UW player will return, which is far from a guarantee during the current NCAA climate when transferring between schools has become more prevalent.
And we’re also speculating that seniors Hameir Wright and Quade Green will not return even though the NCAA is allowing every student-athlete an extra year of eligibility in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Replenish the front line
This has to be the top priority and bringing in four-star recruit Jackson Grant, a 6-foot-10 forward from Olympia High School, won’t be nearly enough.
No one should think of Grant as any type of savior even though he’ll arrive with impressive credentials, notably as UW’s ninth McDonald’s All-American.
However, Hopkins has two available scholarships and the Huskies need one or two big men — preferably fifth-year or junior-college transfers who can immediately contribute — to either support or supplant junior forward Nate Roberts, who was admirable in his first year as a starter while averaging 5.2 points and 5.7 rebounds.
For whatever reasons, the addition of junior forward J’Raan Brooks hasn’t panned out as planned. The former Garfield High standout wasn’t able to find consistent minutes at UW since transferring from USC.
Hopkins awarded former walk-on Riley Sorn a scholarship last season and it will be interesting to see if the 7-foot-4 sophomore center, who had some bright spots and played sparingly in 24 games this season, receives financial aid again next season.
2. Empower Jamal Bey
It’s now or never for Bey, a junior guard who many predicted would be the next big Husky star.
“Keep an eye on Jamal,” former UW standout and Philadelphia 76er Matisse Thybulle said before the season when asked if there are any Huskies with NBA potential. “Jamal can do it all. He can defend, shoot it, post up and score off the dribble.”
The Huskies need Bey, who averaged 10.3 points and led the Pac-12 in three-point shooting percentage (50.7%), to assume command and take control of a team in dire need of leadership.
Admittedly, Bey often defers to teammates to a fault. He ranked third among Huskies in field-goal attempts and fourth in three-point tries, which has to change next season given his accuracy.
During the offseason, Bey would do well to work out with Seattle icon Jamal Crawford, who in the past helped unlock dormant potential in former UW stars Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss and Thybulle.
3. Find a playmaker and limit turnovers
Is Marcus Tsohonis, who was second in scoring among the Huskies with 10.4 points per game, going to be the starting point guard?
The 6-3 sophomore is an efficient scorer inside the arc and is developing into a closer when the Huskies need a bucket at the end of games.
But it’s interesting to note Hopkins hasn’t had a traditional pass-first point guard during his four years on Montlake, which is partly to blame for UW’s offensive ineffectiveness.
Washington led the Pac-12 in turnovers (15.1 per game) during the 2019-20 season and ranked 10th this season with 13.7.
It remains to be seen if Nate Pryor, arguably UW’s best passer, is compatible with Bey and Tsohonis in a three-guard lineup. Pryor will take care of the ball and generally makes the right play, but his 23.1% three-point shooting makes him an offensive liability.
4. Can’t we all just get along?
Admittedly, it took the Huskies several weeks to form any sort of chemistry that might translate into on-court success.
Hopkins is a team-builder who makes significant and meaningful contributions into his players off the court, so it would seem as if COVID is to blame because the coronavirus forced teams across the country to distance from each other off the floor.
Players hanging out in the locker room, sharing meals or gathering in small groups away from basketball didn’t happen this season, which can be a detriment for a UW team that brought in three new transfers.
Too many times, the Huskies looked like a disjointed bunch that hadn’t really connected, bought into the team concept or invested in each other. During times of adversity, too often the UW’s best players resorted to hero ball, which might have been well intentioned, but came across as selfish and detrimental.
“It just felt like some games we played just to play,” Bey said when asked the difference between early in the season and how the Huskies played at the end. “But now I think we’re playing for each other and playing to win for each other.”
If the Huskies address Nos. 3 and 4 in this offseason to-do list, then it’ll help them establish some type of offensive identity, which has been non-existent the past two seasons.
5. Pick two between Stevenson, Bajema and Battle
There doesn’t seem to be enough minutes to distribute between Erik Stevenson, Cole Bajema and RaeQuan Battle that will keep all three of them happy.
Without the benefit of a traditional training camp, exhibitions and nothing more than a handful of nonconference games, Hopkins didn’t really know what he had in Stevenson and Bajema, who transferred from Wichita State and Michigan, respectively.
At the time, it seemed like a prudent decision when the Huskies essentially made Battle the odd man out and used his minutes to find out what the newcomers could do in game situations over an extended period of time.
This could be the most interesting position battle going forward.
Stevenson, who averaged 9.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals, appears to have the upper hand given a track record as a high-energy productive performer. The 6-3 guard, who shot 29.8% on three-pointers, is far more efficient finishing plays than initiating the offense.
Bajema may have the most upside among the trio considering he’s long at 6-7 and an efficient scorer who shoots 46.1% from the floor, 42.1% on three-pointers and 82.4% at the line.
Battle, a four-star prospect who ranked nationally among the top 80 recruits, is arguably UW’s most athletic player who struggles with shot selection and an erratic jumper (24.1% career on three-pointers).
6. Re-establish some semblance of recruiting stature
Hopkins is enthusiastically charming and eternally optimistic, but the past two seasons have to be a PR nightmare when he’s on the recruiting trail.
Still, the Huskies have a lot to sell prospects including a world-class university in a metropolitan Northwest city; a first-rate arena and the impending construction of a basketball-only training facility; a program with a rich hoops history of conference championships, Husky alumni of NBA players and a passionate fan base; and the ability to play in a power conference that despite its shortcomings still provides great visibility to potential pro prospects.
But it’s difficult to ignore the Huskies’ recruiting misses in the past year highlighted by whiffing on local stars Paolo Banchero and Shane Nowell who are heading to Duke and Arizona, respectively. If Washington can’t land backyard prospects with strong ties to the program – Banchero’s parents and Nowell’s brother played at UW – then that’s a serious sign of despair.
There was a time not so long ago when it was a given that Washington would have more talent than every Pac-12 school with the exception of Arizona and UCLA.
However, those days are done.
Oregon and USC are perennial included among the top-20 nationally ranked recruiting lists.
Generally speaking, the Pac-12 recruiting pecking order then includes Colorado, Stanford and Arizona State, which leaves Washington near the bottom of the conference with Washington State, Oregon State, Utah and California.
The Huskies are ninth in the Pac-12 in the 2021 recruiting rankings according to Rivals and 247Sports.
Simply put, Hopkins has to do a better job of selling Washington at a time when the program’s image has never been more tarnished.
[In Part III of our season review, we’ll look at Mike Hopkins and explore Washington’s options as it pertains to its beleaguered coach.]