For 2½ years, Mike Hopkins and the Huskies enjoyed a blissful honeymoon filled with record-breaking performances, a trophy case of awards, a Pac-12 championship and two postseason appearances, including a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Washington posted a 58-23 record (.716) over its first 81 games with its first-time coach from Syracuse, who turned 50 last August.
Before their Christmas Day matchup with Houston in Honolulu, the Huskies were 10-2, ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press top-25 poll and seemingly headed toward a Diamond Head Classic title.
However, Washington dropped a heartbreaking 75-71 defeat in the final minutes, which began a midseason tailspin that seemed inconceivable at the start of the season.
The Huskies (12-9, 2-6 Pac-12) are 2-7 in their past nine games heading into Thursday’s 6 p.m. contest against Arizona (13-6, 3-3) at Alaska Airlines Arena.
And for the first time in his UW tenure, Hopkins is facing the kind of adversity, criticism and second-guessing that he managed to adroitly sidestep during his first two seasons.
“And as a player growing up I’ve always had adversity,” said Hopkins, an unheralded point guard from Southern California who struggled early at Syracuse before starring as a senior. “I was never the so-so. To be honest with you, I loved the underdog role.”
Quite unexpectedly, the Huskies are underdogs once again despite a roster highlighted by two projected first-round NBA picks in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.
It’s a familiar feeling for Hopkins, who took over a team that was 9-22 and 2-16 in the Pac-12 the season before his arrival in 2017.
Hopkins, who has a 60-31 record at UW, said he’s learned more about himself in the past nine games than he did during his first two years with the Huskies when he won a pair of Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards.
“Sometimes it’s so easy to take a look at that (the score) rather than looking at the process and focusing on the process everyday,” Hopkins said. “For me, I’ve always felt that way, but sometimes you can get lost in a different direction. So for me, it’s the process of why did I get into coaching? I got into coaching because I love making guys better. I love putting together a group of guys that they say can’t do it, but you can do it.
“In perspective, you go through this thing and sometimes you get tested. But it’s really a sign of your true character of what’s going to come out when you’re tested. Winning is not going to teach you anything, but I’ve learned a whole hell of a lot and hopefully we can turn it and that’s what we’re focused on doing.”
With the exception of senior forward Sam Timmins, Hopkins has assembled UW’s roster, which is loaded with young talent but limited on experienced veterans.
The previous two seasons, the Huskies leaned heavily on a battle-tested cast of Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Noah Dickerson, Dominic Green and Jaylen Nowell, which included four 1,000-points scorers and a combined 602 games.
Washington’s 2019-20 projected starting lineup of Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jamal Bey, Stewart and McDaniels have combined for just 269 games and fewer than 1,800 points.
“It’s easy for doubt to creep in when losses start to accumulate and things aren’t going well,” Wright said. “But we got to learn to trust in each other, trust in our staff and coaches and people around us and try to block out the outside noise and just focus on the goals that we have in front of us.”
Wright, a two-year starting forward, and Carter, UW’s leading returning scorer from last season, are both juniors from New York who are thrust into leadership positions.
“There’s definitely nights that we talk to each other and just try to figure out the game plan,” Wright said. “When things aren’t going right, you’re going to try to see why aren’t they. And we’re both good basketball minds and have been close friends for years. We confide in each other. Confide in our teammates and just have a conversation with coaches.”
Since their 76-62 loss at No. 20 Colorado on Saturday, the Huskies have been working to squeeze more out of an offense that’s averaging just 62.8 points during Pac-12 play and ranks next to last in the league.
Hopkins used 11 players against the Buffaloes and nine during a 67-66 defeat at Utah, but plans to shorten the rotation going forward.
And McDaniels, who played just nine minutes off the bench last Saturday, will likely return to the starting lineup against Arizona.
“Jaden has really been hampered after he had his ankle injury,” Hopkins said referring to McDaniels’ sprained ankle on Jan. 11. “In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have played him without having him practicing. It’s probably my bad. Instead of having him 100% healed, it’s kind of still hampered.
“And Jaden gets a little frustrated. He’s frustrated in his play, his ankle, he can’t move and he’s not doing those things.”
To offset the team-wide anxiety, Hopkins is telling the Huskies to relax and enjoy playing basketball.
“The focus has been have fun, get better, (it’s) not the end of the world,” he said. “We just got to focus on how can we get better every day. Nothing else matters. It’s the only thing in our control. We just have to stay positive. We’ve got to stay together and the most important thing is have fun.”
Hopkins used the word “fun” at least 4-5 times during Wednesday’s interview, which began and ended with playful banter with the media.
“We’re there,” he said smiling. “The most important thing is our team knows that they’re good. Our team knows that we have enough talent to win. We just have to execute better. We got to play better in stretches. That’s all we can focus on.
“The most important thing is you’ve got to be happy. You’ve got to be positive. You’ve got to be confident. And you’ve got to do it together.”