After one upset win over a ranked team, two preseason games, three defeats, four foreign exhibitions and over 30,000 miles of travel between trips to Italy, Texas, Alaska, Canada and Hawaii, Mike Hopkins has a pretty good gauge of the Huskies.
Yeah, Washington is still relatively young even in college basketball where teams regularly hit the reset button.
And half of the Huskies, including three starters, have never played in a Pac-12 game, which might seem unsettling as Washington (10-3) opens conference play at 7 p.m. Thursday against UCLA (7-6) at Alaska Airlines Arena.
But after five months, Hopkins believes UW players should have a strong sense of who they are, their strengths and deficiencies, and know how they need to win games.
“I would hope so,” he said. “We know we try to get it to Isaiah.”
Isaiah as in Isaiah Stewart, the 18-year-old man-child who is one of two players nationally and the only freshman averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds while shooting at least 60% from the field.
The 6-foot-9 forward, who has exceeded the preseason hype of a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft, has ingrained himself into UW’s identity in short time.
“He just plays so hard and he competes at a high level the whole time,” Hopkins said. “When you talk about dependability and what you want and knowing what you’re going to get, I think he’s the definition of that.”
For the most part, Hopkins knows what he’s going to get from Stewart, who has scored at least 14 points in every game this season. But it’s unclear what UW’s supporting cast will deliver.
Take for instance, Jaden McDaniels.
In his last outing, UW’s other freshman prodigy was sensational in the first half while scoring 10 points and draining two three-pointers against Houston in the Diamond Head Classic title game last week.
But in the second half, McDaniels went scoreless and attempted just one shot during the 75-71 defeat.
“Jaden got in a little bit of foul trouble,” Hopkins said. “He started out so hot and he was so good, rebounded the ball exceptionally well. Second half he just couldn’t get it going, that happens in games. But he’s a heck of a player and we’re going to need his offense and defense in the games as we move forward.”
Junior guard Nahziah Carter, sophomore guard Quade Green and junior forward Hameir Wright have also been inconsistent and any dropoff from the starters becomes glaring due to the lack of bench production from a relatively short rotation of six to eight players.
“I trust those guys on and off the court because I know they’ve got my back,” Stewart said after a superlative 25-point, 8-rebound performance against Houston. “I know they’re looking for me and if I don’t have a shot, then I’m passing it out.”
Clearly, the pecking order starts with Stewart.
“When you have a guy as dominant as he is – you obviously need balance – but you’ve got to go to what works,” Hopkins said. “That’s why Jaylen Nowell had the ball all the time. He was pretty successful.”
Last season Nowell led the Huskies to a 15-3 conference record before claiming the Pac-12 Player of the Year award and leaving early for the NBA draft.
Still, Hopkins admits that Stewart can only carry the Huskies so far.
The second component to a second straight Pac-12 regular-season championship is reclaiming a terrorizing defense that led the league in steals and blocks while finishing second in the conference in points allowed.
“Defensively we know that’s where we hang our hat,” Hopkins said. “The (2-3) zone is something that gives us something different.”
Washington is 1-3 this season when teams score 75 or more points and 10-14 in those games since Hopkins took over three years ago.
“Can we become a top-20 defensive team?” Hopkins asked.
The Huskies are allowing just 64.6 points, which ranks fourth in the Pac-12, tied for 88th nationally and is slightly better than last season’s team that surrendered 64.8.
Washington’s super-sized roster ranks second in the Pac-12 and 11th nationally with 6.3 blocks and the Huskies average 7.7 steals, which is third in the conference.
“I feel like we’re right there,” Stewart said. “We do so many things right. … We force a bad shot, but then we don’t get the rebound. Things like that hurt us.”
Even more painful is Washington’s 14.8 turnovers per game.
“It’s awareness and it’s understanding,” Hopkins said. “We’re not huge into numbers, but a lot of our numbers in the top-25 games that we’ve played are around turnovers. You can’t give a top-25 team 15 extra possessions off of offensive rebounds and turnovers, you just can’t do it at the level we want to play at.”
If not for their sloppy ballhandling, Hopkins believes Washington would be 12-1 rather than 10-3.
“Growing pains,” he said wistfully. “You’re always going to have that when you have youth and inexperience.”
Other than an extra practice and one last film study, there’s no way Hopkins can get the Huskies any more experience before they begin defense of their Pac-12 regular-season title.
“I know they’re just excited,” he said. “Nothing is going to be like seeing Hec Ed sold out, UCLA, Pac-12, the students coming back. What can be better than that?
“When you walk into that building and you start to feel that environment and you start to feel that energy, it’s really, really exciting.”