Mike Hopkins is normally overflowing with optimism and enthusiasm that rivals the perpetually positive-minded Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
However, the fourth-year Washington men’s basketball coach couldn’t hide the uncertainty he feels heading into Sunday’s 3 p.m. unexpected season opener against No. 2 Baylor at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“When you ask me what do I expect? I don’t know,” Hopkins said during a phone interview. “You never know until the lights are on. You never know chemistry until you play. I do know they’re sick of playing against each other.
“But we’ve been blessed to be able to go against one of the top teams in the country. We’ll see where we’re at. We’ll watch that tape and get better — win or lose — and move forward and try to reach our potential as a team. But we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves (Sunday) night for sure.”
Months ago, Washington canceled its trip to China to play Tulane and recently had to scrap this week’s Husky Classic, a four-team tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Baylor fills a gaping hole on UW’s schedule and gives the Huskies a prominent nonconference opponent after losing games against Gonzaga, Auburn and Oklahoma.
The Bears return four starters, including preseason Associated Press All-American Jared Butler, from a team that finished 26-4 last season and was on track for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before the season was derailed by COVID-19.
Baylor will reportedly be led by assistant Jerome Tang because coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19 last Sunday and remains in quarantine.
Hopkins said the Huskies are at full strength excluding senior guard Nahziah Carter, who is suspended from the team for violating the Intercollegiate Athletics student code of conduct.
Carter, UW’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, did not make the trip to Las Vegas and it’s uncertain when or if he’ll return this season.
“It’s up in the air,” Hopkins said. “There’s a process in place and he’s got to go through the process.”
3 KEYS TO THE SEASON
Light it up from downtown
During Hopkins’ previous three seasons, Washington’s offense relied primarily on dominant low-post scorers Isaiah Stewart and Noah Dickerson. Junior forward Nate Roberts is expected to be the first scoring option in the paint and he shot 52.6% last season. However, Hopkins is retooling the offense to feature an array of three-point shooters, including Quade Green, Marcus Tsohonis, Erik Stevenson, RaeQuan Battle and Cole Bajema. The Huskies ranked eighth in the Pac-12 last season while shooting 32.% on three-pointers. They’ll need to improve their perimeter marksmanship to offset the loss of 65% of its scoring. UW averaged 21 shots behind the arc last season and will likely attempt 30 or more this season.
Green needs lots of help
Carter remains suspended and his return is uncertain, which puts the burden to score on Green – at least until others prove they’re ready for bigger roles in the offense. During his 15-game stint with the Huskies last season, Green scored in double figures 10 times. He tallied a season high 21 points and twice scored 20. But after Green, it remains to be seen where the Huskies will consistently go for points. Stevenson, the former Timberline High star in Lacey, returns home after two years at Wichita State heralded as a gritty competitor and a knock-down shooter. Expect Green and Stevenson to take the lion’s share of the shots, but Washington will need Tsohonis, Bey, Wright, Battle or Bajema to develop into a third option.
Stay out of foul trouble
The frontline is awfully thin and the Huskies are susceptible to serious trouble if Roberts, Wright and Brooks can’t play extended minutes or are unavailable for any reason. There just isn’t a lot of apparent rim protection in the lineup. The chiseled and square-shouldered Roberts looks the part and will be given every opportunity to anchor UW’s stingy 2-3 zone defense, but he finished with just three blocks in 19 games last season. He also had 34 rebounds, 11 offensive and five steals. Wright and Brooks are a pair of 6-9 long and lean forwards that’s more suited for the wings than the interior. Don’t be surprised if former walk-on Riley Sorn, a 7-4 center, carves out a spot in the rotation even though he appeared in just one game last season. After two years, the Huskies gave him a scholarship this season.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
G – Quade Green
G – Erik Stevenson
G – Jamal Bey
F – Hameir Wright
F – Nate Roberts
G – Marcus Tsohonis
G – RaeQuan Battle
F – J’Raan Brooks
G – Cole Bajema/Nate Pryor
C – Riley Sorn
0 Marcus Tsohonis (G, 6-3, So.) – 7.3 ppg, 2.2 apg, 2.1 rpg, 42.4% FG, 41.2% 3pt, 65.4% FT.
1 Nate Roberts (F, 6-10, So.) – 1.4 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 52.6% FG, 37.5% FT.
5 Jamal Bey (G, 6-6, Jr.) – 5.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.5 spg, 37.0% FG, 25.4% 3pt, 74.2% FT.
11 Nahziah Carter (G, 6-6, Sr.) – 12.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 43.3% FG, 36.6% 3pt, 61.7 FT.
13 Hameir Wright (F, 6-9, Sr.) – 5.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 34.9% FG, 33.6% 3pt, 63.0% FT.
21 RaeQuan Battle (G, 6-5, So.) – 4.9 ppg, 0.3 apg, 1.4 rpg, 33.0% FG, 26.5% 3pt, 78.6% FT.
52 Riley Sorn (C, 7-4, So.) – 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg, 0.0 FG.
55 Quade Green (G, 6-0, Sr.) – 11.6 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.6 rpg, 51.4% FG, 44.7% 3pt, 83.7% FT.
4 Nate Pryor (G, 6-4, Jr.) – 16.8 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.8 rpg, 52.6% FG, 35.5% 3pt, 71.6% FT at North Idaho College.
10 Erik Stevenson (G, 6-3, Jr.) – 11.1 ppg, 2.3 apg, 4.7 rpg, 37.7% FG, 30.4% 3pt, 78.3% FT at Wichita State.
22 Cole Bajema (G, 6-7, So.) – 2.6 ppg, 0.4 rpg, 76.9% FG, 57.1% 3pt, 100% FT at Michigan.
33 J’Raan Brooks (F, 6-9, Jr.) – 2.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 44.2% FG, 35.3% 3pt, 44.4% FT at USC.