Is there hope?
When you look at the Washington men’s basketball program, do you see a future or merely a failure? When you assess these Huskies, is there a flicker of light or an endless tunnel?
It would have seemed nuts to ask these questions at the end of the 2018-19 season, when UW made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament after a seven-year Dance drought. But after two putrid years, in which the season finales were not upsetting so much as they were merciful, it’s fair to wonder: Do fans have any reason for optimism?
The first place to start is head coach Mike Hopkins. The former Syracuse assistant was a low-profile hire when he replaced Lorenzo Romar four years ago, but quickly won over the Husky faithful with his attitude and results. Always cheerful and kindhearted, Hopkins won two straight Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards while spontaneously doing push-ups during practice or drawing smiley faces on his whiteboard during games.
It appeared to be a masterstroke by athletic director Jen Cohen. Or was it simply a mirage?
Over at uwdawgpound.com, Max Vrooman pointed out that Hopkins’ coaching acumen may have been vastly overrated. Yes, he was able to keep Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Dominic Green after Romar left, but how well did he actually coach them?
The records (21-13 in ’17-18, and 27-9 in ’18-19) suggest he did so beautifully. But a look at the advanced stats — if you’re into that kind of thing — paint another picture. The Huskies finished 98th in the esteemed KenPom rankings in Hopkins’ first year, suggesting that their record outpaced their performance. Same with the following year, when they finished 48th in KenPom, behind six teams that missed the tournament altogether.
That team had four seniors who were among the Huskies’ top five minutes-getters, plus two players (Thybulle and Nowell) who were picked in the NBA draft, so UW was expected to do well. The following year’s team was, too.
Despite having two of the top 10 recruits in the country (Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels), the Huskies finished last in the Pac-12 while winning just five conference games. The next year, after losing those two players, they finished 11th in the Pac-12 while winning just five games total.
But can they still recruit?
Well, according to 247Sports.com, Washington has the 78th best recruiting class in the country for 2021, 29 spots below Harvard, and 13 below Pepperdine, where Romar is coaching.
In other years, Hopkins’ job might be in serious jeopardy. Given that UW would be on the hook for the $12.2 million remaining on his contract, he’ll probably be safe. The pandemic made it a tumultuous year financially for Washington, and Hopkins did get to the tournament two years ago. But I imagine the Huskies will need a massive turnaround — or a light’s out recruiting class — for him to make it to the 2022-23 season.
So will either of those happen? My colleague Percy Allen put a list together of everything that needs to go right for UW to become contenders again. Examples were replenishing the front line (which got destroyed in the paint), empowering guard Jamal Bey (a dead-eye shooter who can be overly passive), finding a playmaker and re-establishing their recruiting stature.
All would be nice, but none are guaranteed. In fact, given what we’ve seen over the past two years, both on the court and the recruiting trail, it would be hard to say such changes are even probable.
As it stands, Washington is ninth in the Pac-12 in recruiting with one commit. Standout returners are scarce, as is size and consistent shooting. Hopkins has shown little ability to adjust over the past couple seasons, nor has he been able to maintain momentum after a surprising win or two.
Basketball is one of those sports where a couple of stars are able to turn programs around. This isn’t quite like a football team that’s been completely depleted.
So I suppose there is some hope. You just need a microscope to see it.