This year’s Pac-12 men’s basketball media day was drastically different for Mike Hopkins and the Huskies.
Due to COVID-19, the six-hour event took place virtually with coaches and players from each team connecting via laptops from their respective gymnasiums, offices, conference rooms and dorms rather than making the annual trip to the league’s San Francisco headquarters.
Normally, this is a time when coaches give rosy outlooks on the upcoming season.
Keeping to form, Hopkins spent very little time dwelling on the Huskies’ modest expectations — UW was picked ninth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll — and spoke optimistically about rebounding from last season’s dismal 15-17 record and 12th-place conference finish at 5-13.
“We’re going to have to win by committee and I think we have a lot of great pieces,” said Hopkins, who enters his fourth season with a 63-39 record at UW, including a 2018-19 Pac-12 regular-season title. “A lot of guys who have a lot of experience and just looking forward to having the opportunity to play and compete.”
It was a good news, bad news and no news type of day for Washington.
First the good news.
The NCAA granted junior guard Erik Stevenson’s waiver request, which makes the Wichita State transfer eligible to play this season.
“We’re extremely excited,” Hopkins said. “The guy is a proven player at the highest level. … He can really shoot the ball. He makes plays. He’s a high-level competitor.
“Last year, we struggled shooting the ball, 32% (on three-pointers). You bring a high-level shooter/scorer and a guy who really, really competes on both ends of the floor.”
Stevenson, who starred at Timberline High in Lacey, averaged 11.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals last season. The 6-foot-3 sharp shooter, who sank 51 three-pointers (which would have led the Huskies) is seemingly a perfect fit for UW’s revamped three-point attack.
“He’s just a hard worker, great guy (and) very competitive,” senior forward Hameir Wright said. “It kind of took me by surprise because this is my first time meeting him this past summer when he transferred.
“If you get to know the guy, he’s a great hard worker. Very skilled basketball player and he’ll give it everything he’s got. And you just loved to be surrounded by guys like that.”
In terms of the bad news, UW released a shortened six-game nonconference schedule that doesn’t include a big-name opponent and isn’t going to elicit much excitement from fans.
The Huskies had marquee games against Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Tulane canceled due to the pandemic and scrambled to replace them with Portland State (Nov. 25), San Diego (Nov. 27), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 28), Seattle University (Dec. 9) and Montana (Dec. 16). UW also travels to Las Vegas on Dec. 20 to play Colorado in a nonconference game.
And finally, Hopkins didn’t have an update on senior guard Nahziah Carter or transfer Cole Bajema.
Hopkins expects a positive result with Bajema, but appears far less optimistic with Carter, who has been suspended for violating the code of conduct in the UW athletic department.
With less than two weeks remaining before the start of the season, the Huskies are preparing to play without their leading returning scorer. Carter averaged 12.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals as a junior.
“Whatever happens is going to happen,” Hopkins said. “If he’s with us, unbelievable. If he’s not, we’ll deal with it. It is what it is. We’re moving forward. I like our guys. I like our team. Just can’t wait to compete.”
Conceivably, UW’s starting lineup includes guards Quade Green, Jamal Bey and Stevenson alongside forwards Nate Roberts and Wright.
Guards Marcus Tsohonis, RaeQuan Battle and newcomer Nate Pryor will push for minutes in the backcourt while forward J’Raan Brooks should provide relief on the front line.
Hopkins acknowledged UW’s limited depth could prove to be a liability this season while attempting to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Getting all of these guys ready within our system is going to be really, really important,” Hopkins said. “I think the safest team will have probably a competitive advantage as we move forward during this season.
“Hopefully, we can stay safe and our roster will be fine. But with this season, anything is possible.”