Just as soon as Mike Hopkins solves one of the many problems that’s plaguing the Washington men’s basketball team, another complication becomes painfully obvious and needs to be addressed.
At the start of the season, the Huskies’ rebounding issues largely contributed to a pair of lopsided losses in Las Vegas.
Washington was out-rebounded by 31 in a season-opening defeat to then-No. 2 Baylor, and UW lost the battle of the boards by 16 against UC Riverside in its next outing.
That’s when Hopkins went to work.
Over the next four games, the Huskies (1-7, 0-3 Pac-12) out-rebounded opponents by three, which resulted in their only win and two narrow defeats.
But in an attempt to fix a stagnant offense and reverse course on Washington’s worst start in nearly seven decades, Hopkins tinkered with lineups in each of the past two games.
The changes not only stretched UW’s losing streak to four heading into Thursday’s 6 p.m. game against Stanford, but it caused the Huskies to backtrack on the gains they made in improving the rebounding issues.
Over the past two games, Washington was out-rebounded by an average of 21.5 boards, including a 28-rebound disparity during an 80-53 defeat against Arizona on Dec. 31.
“We’ve got to rebound the ball better,” Hopkins said during a teleconference call on Tuesday. “The bottom line is, we’re 72nd in KenPom in defensive efficiency. We’re 333 in defensive rebounding. So we’re giving up 14.5 offensive rebounds a game. If we can hold that to eight or nine offensive rebounds a game, statistically we’d be in the top-40 defensive teams in the country.
“Defensive rebounding has to be a major focus as we move forward.”
Hopkins acknowledged rebounding can be an issue for teams such as UW that primarily relies on a 2-3 zone defense. During his previous three seasons at Washington, the Huskies have never ranked higher than eighth in the Pac-12 in rebounding and twice finished 11th.
“The zone is not a great rebounding defense; let’s just call it what it is,” he said. “But it’s a mindset. I really believe where focus goes, energy grows. It’s one of those things we’re going to focus on a day-to-day basis. It’s five guys getting on the glass.
“Against us, when teams are shooting a lot of threes and we’re trying to defend it, there’s going to be misses and long rebounds and our guards are going to have to rebound better. It’s focus. It’s film. It’s understanding and then we got to hold them accountable to it.”
Still, improving the rebounding will be difficult for the Huskies considering they don’t have very many gifted rebounders, and they’re limited to just three players 6 foot 9 or taller in the rotation.
The thin front line and foul trouble often forces Washington to employ a four-guard lineup that gets pushed around by bigger opponents.
“Rebounding is willpower and effort,” said 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Nate Roberts, who averages a team-high 7.5 rebounds. “When we’re engaged and everybody is chipping in and finding ways to win, the rebounding discrepancy is lesser than it has been in these past few games, and I think we kind of gotten away from that just with the disappointments on the offensive end. Guys worried about their shot — not their shots but makes and misses.
“But with the preparation that we’ve had the emphasis on rebounding I think that we’re going to see a different change and guys being all in on rebounding.”
UW’s top priority heading into Thursday’s game is containing Pac-12 MVP candidate Oscar da Silva, who averages a league-leading 19.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 blocks.
In his last outing, the 6-foot-9 senior forward destroyed Oregon State with 31 points on 11-for-16 shooting from the floor, 9-for-12 shooting on free throws, 10 rebounds and four assists during an 81-71 victory on Monday.
Last month, the German standout tallied a career-high 32 points while connecting on 9 of 11 field goals and draining all 14 foul shots.
“They’re going to put him in the high post, and we got to defend it and try to keep him out of there,” Hopkins said. “You can see a little bit of wrinkle defensively in terms of what we can do. Great players usually find a way to score. You got to limit their percentages and make it difficult.”
Stanford (6-3, 2-1), which is playing its home games at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz, California, due to coronavirus restrictions in Santa Clara County, is also led by one-time UW signee and senior guard Daejon Davis (13.8 ppg.) and freshman star forward Ziare Williams (11.1 ppg.), who is considered a top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
The Cardinal, which has won five of its past six games, ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in rebounding (37.9) and the Huskies are 11th (32.5).
“I saw them early in the year, and I thought they had the most talent and was one of the best teams in the league,” Hopkins said. “They’ve been hit by COVID-19 harder than anybody, I think, in the country. … But they got a lot of challenge and they’re an experienced team.
“It will be a helluva challenge. The biggest thing is, how do we make it difficult to where they try to attack us?”