After several ominous outings and a few promising performances in nonconference play, the Washington men’s basketball team begins the Pac-12 season at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at No. 11 Arizona.
It’s the earliest conference opener for UW in 32 years, dating back to Nov. 30, 1989.
It’s also the start of a 10-day trek in which Washington (4-4) plays three ranked teams. On Sunday, UW hosts No. 5 UCLA before taking a short trip to Spokane to face No. 3 Gonzaga on Dec. 12.
“I look at it as three great opportunities,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “Arizona is probably playing best of any team in our league.”
That’s not hyperbole.
Perhaps sooner than anyone expected, new coach Tommy Loyd has seemingly revitalized the Wildcats (6-0), which are one of two unbeaten Pac-12 teams. The longtime Gonzaga assistant replaced Sean Miller following a 17-9 record and fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 at 11-9 last season.
“Obviously different coach and different system, but a lot of the same players, so we’re familiar with what they do and how they (play),” Hopkins said. “You’re basically playing Gonzaga/Arizona in a way. Tommy has done a great job. They look lethal, especially on the offensive end. Their defense is high level and pressuring.”
Hopkins added: “It’s going to be a big challenge” perhaps as a reference to Arizona’s dominant front line, which has clobbered opponents in lopsided wins against UT Rio Grande Valley (104-50) and Sacramento State (105-59).
The Wildcats also used their superior size up front to throttle No. 4 Michigan 80-62 on Sunday.
“I don’t think anything can really slow them down,” Hopkins said, referring to Arizona’s offense that leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 91.5 points per game. “Wichita State was able to turn them over a little bit with their pressure. They stifled Michigan. We know we got three different (defenses) we’ve been throwing at teams and figuring out what’s going to work for us.”
Washington has relied on its 2-3 zone, man-to-man defense and a full-court press with mixed results. The Huskies rank last in the Pac-12 in points allowed (73.5) and is second in the league in steals (7.6).
On Thursday, priority No. 1 for the Huskies is slowing down Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko.
Tubelis, a 6-foot-11 sophomore forward, is averaging 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds while Koloko, a 7-1 junior center, is averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. They’re both shooting better than 62% from the field.
Far too often, UW has struggled to contain opposing big men.
Wyoming forward Graham Ike was nearly unstoppable while tallying 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting and 10 rebounds. Winthrop forward D.J. Burns Jr. finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. And George Mason forward Josh Oduro had 21 points and nine rebounds.
Washington relies on a rotation of big men starting with captain Nate Roberts, a 6-11 forward who is a fourth-year junior and two-year starter.
Since an impressive 19-rebound and 10-point performance in a 71-64 season-opening upset loss to Northern Illinois, Roberts is averaging 2.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 17.4 minutes.
In his last outing, Roberts was scoreless and held to just four rebounds in a season-low eight minutes during Saturday’s 82-74 defeat to Winthrop
Following the loss, Hopkins said: “We got to get some scoring from our big guys down low.”
During Hopkins’ first three years at Washington, the offense revolved around all-Pac-12 forwards Noah Dickerson and Isaiah Stewart.
Without a dynamic scoring threat inside, the offensive output has steadily declined since Hopkins’ first season when UW averaged 74.3 points per game.
Washington ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring (72.6 ppg.) thanks in large part to conference scoring leader Terrell Brown Jr. (21.6 ppg.), who makes his first return to Arizona after a one-year stint with the Wildcats.
“We knew our biggest issue was going to be scoring in the half court,” Hopkins said. “I do believe we have good shooting so that’s a good sign. I know we have good passing and that’s a good sign. We have to limit our turnovers. And then on top of that, space out the floor. That’s the strength of our team.
“Nate, if he gets good position can score down there. It’s different than Noah. Noah you could play through. Nate in certain opportunities will be able to be effective, but playing through him it’s not there yet.”
Hopkins also acknowledged the conundrum of whether to give more opportunities to Roberts or rely on a four-guard lineup that includes backup PJ Fuller and has often been UW’s most effective attack.
“When we go small, we’re vulnerable on the glass,” Hopkins said.
UW has been outrebounded in six of its eight games by a margin of 265 to 187, which is a disparity of 13 rebounds per game.
Hopkins composed Washington’s nonconference schedule, but he lamented the lack of practices early in the season. The Huskies played eight games during the first 19 days of the season.
Following two days off, Washington spent the past two days addressing their front line issues before facing an Arizona team that leads the conference in rebounding (46.0), blocks (7.3), points allowed (57.7) and opponent’s field goal percentage (32.5).
“I know our guys and we’re going to be good,” Hopkins said. “But is that going to be tomorrow? Is that going to be the next day? We’ve shown signs, but now it just goes to the consistency over time.”