Could you have pictured this 15 months ago? Could you have imagined this whiplash-inducing, 180-degree turn?
The Washington men’s basketball team looked as though it was on the brink of becoming an NCAA Tournament staple. Instead, the Huskies have become a Pac-12 doormat.
How did this happen? More importantly, can it be fixed? Because the way they are playing, the Huskies might have a fan-free Alaska Airlines Arena regardless of COVID-19.
Let’s go back to the fall of 2019, when hope for this program was the highest it had been all decade. The Huskies were a few months removed from a Pac-12 title and an NCAA tournament win after being left out of the dance in each of the previous seven seasons.
Coach Mike Hopkins looked like the future king of Washington’s campus, having earned conference coach of the year in each of his two seasons on Montlake. Moreover, he lured Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, both of whom were among the top 10 recruits in the country. Throw in former five-star point guard Quade Green, who Hopkins got to transfer from Kentucky, and a deep tourney run not only seemed possible, but likely.
A November win over Baylor — which later rose to No. 1 in the AP rankings — seemed to justify the expectations.
Then, something happened. The Huskies became college basketball’s version of “Waterworld” — off-the-charts hype … but in the end, a flop.
Green was declared academically ineligible two games into Pac-12 play. McDaniels never seemed to get fully acclimated. Stewart lived up to his billing, but the rest of the team did not. The result was the Huskies going 15-17 overall, 5-13 in conference and finishing in last place in the league.
Amid the Huskies’ struggles, I wrote of the difference in penning an original screenplay vs. an adapted one. The point was that Hopkins was masterful with the recruits of his predecessor, Lorenzo Romar, but had accomplished little with his own. Not that it couldn’t change. He was still relatively new at this. But here we are, seven games into this season, and these Huskies are making last season’s team look like the freakin’ Lakers.
The sole win for the Huskies (1-6) came against Seattle U. They have lost to Baylor by 34 points, UC Riverside by 15, Utah by 14, Oregon by three, Montana by eight, and, most recently, Colorado by 23. Their 61 points per game are last in the Pac-12 by 7.7. Their .398 field goal percentage is also 12th in league, as is their .254 three-point percentage, while their 32.9 rebounds per game are 11th.
Green has been solid at 14.4 points per game and 3.0 assists — but even his shooting numbers are down compared with last season. So can this be turned around? Or were those first two seasons under Hopkins a mirage?
It’s incredibly early if we’re talking about next year’s recruiting class, but with just one commit, Washington is ranked 74th. As for some other Pac-12 teams: UCLA is fifth, Oregon is eighth, USC is 15th, Colorado is 17th, Arizona is 24th, Stanford is 31st, Arizona State is 47th, and Cal is 62nd, UW’s status can all change with one or two haymakers. Washington was 10th in the 2019 recruiting rankings, which was Hopkins’ doing. But right now the Huskies aren’t doing a great job selling their product to potential signees.
To Hopkins’ credit, he remains optimistic. Anyone who knows him knows that’s his only mode. He even said recently that Washington still has a chance to become an “elite” program. But with each emasculating loss, such words ring more and more hollow.
The truth is, this is one of the more striking unravelings we’ve seen in Seattle sports. Hype for Hop was once through the roof, but it appears to be plummeting.
Yes, there is still plenty of season to go. However, the way the Huskies are playing, that might not be such a good thing.