The Washington coaching staff had the traps laid out everywhere in the building to ward off a potentially troublesome infestation they feared would ruin the team’s storybook season of redemption. Not rats -- something much worse.
Last month, the Huskies returned home from a road series sweep at Utah and Colorado and walked into their newly renovated locker room littered with mousetraps.
“Like 30 mousetraps everywhere,” sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell said laughing. “I’m like, what the hell’s going on? We’ve got mouses?”
No, not mice. Worse.
The Washington coaching staff had the traps laid out everywhere in the building to ward off a potentially troublesome infestation they feared would ruin the team’s storybook season of redemption.
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“Will Conroy came up to me and he said coach, ‘I was reading about the coach of the New Orleans Saints (Sean Payton) and he said that every four games that they would win, he would come in with mousetraps,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “It was, don’t eat the cheese. You’ve got to stay humble, hungry and wise. I was like, whoa. That’s a great idea.
“We went right into the office and said buy 15 mousetraps. We were putting them all over in the locker room – and we’ve got a brand-new locker room. Everybody is like, what the hell? I was like, there’s mice in here. No! There’s no way.”
And that’s why after each win, after clinching at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title and climbing into the Associated Press poll this week at No. 25, Hopkins repeats one of UW’s many mantras: “Don’t eat the cheese.”
“It was just a real simple message in terms of being humble and staying sharp and staying gritty and staying focused,” Hopkins said. “That’s who we are, that’s when we’re at our best and nothing changes.
“Top 25? It doesn’t matter. We understand that we’ve got to go out there and perform and play, and play together. If we can do that we’re going to have a chance.
These are uncharted waters for the Huskies (22-5, 13-1 Pac-12) who will make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011, barring a disastrous finish in the next three weeks.
Hopkins has Washington, which has won three straight games, playing its best basketball of the season. The Huskies allowed an average of 50 points during a pair of wins last week against Utah (62-45) and Colorado (64-55).
Washington, which has a 3½-game lead in the Pac-12, is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference in most defensive statistics, including points allowed (63.6), opponents’ field goal percentage (40.6), turnovers forced (16.3), steals (9.0) and blocks (6.0).
And yet, Hopkins is mindful of the pitfalls such as the Huskies’ propensity for turnovers, their innate rebounding deficiencies and frequent scoring droughts.
Still, his biggest concern is players getting bored with success and buying into the hype that hounds a team that’s won 15 of its past 16 games. Hence the mousetraps.
“Just a great symbol of being smart and being cautious of winning,” Hopkins said. “I was taught a long-time ago it’s harder to handle success than it is to handle failure. It’s a great life lesson for these kids to stay humble and do what we’ve done and stay with it.”
The Huskies’ focus will be tested when they face California (5-22, 0-15) on Thursday night at Haas Pavilion (FS1) in a lopsided matchup between the first and last-place teams in the conference.
Cal is trying to avoid becoming the first Pac-12 team to finish winless in the conference. (Oregon State went 0-18 in 2007-08 when the league was the Pac-10.)
Even though the Golden Bears are mired in a school-record 16-game losing skid, Hopkins believes they’re a formidable foe. In their first meeting, Washington overcame an 11-point deficit in the first half and led 29-28 before outscoring Cal 42-24 in the second half for a 71-52 win.
“These guys can play,” Hopkins said. “They had UCLA beat and lost in overtime at home. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder and you’ve got to respect everybody that you play. They’ve got a good program and a good tradition and history. You’re going to their place. You have to go there and earn it.”
The Golden Bears will likely have the Huskies’ full attention considering a victory clinches the outright Pac-12 regular-season title for UW.
Washington is also playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament and a loss to Cal, which is ranked 278th among 353 Division I teams in the NET rankings, would negatively impact UW’s resume.
The Huskies are a 13.5-point favorite, but they’re not paying attention to the Las Vegas oddsmakers or anyone else thanks to Hopkins’ mousetrap mental trick.
“Don’t eat the cheese,” Nowell said smiling. “We all definitely take that very serious. We don’t listen to the outside telling us how good we are. We have to make sure that we play when we’re stepping between the lines.”