Mike Hopkins is in unfamiliar territory and lately he’s been introspective and despondent because he’s never experienced anything like Washington’s six-game losing streak.
“It’s been it’s a new challenge,” the Huskies coach said. “There’s no getting around that. Going through it is pretty tough.”
During his 26 seasons at Syracuse, which includes four years as a fan-favorite, high-energy point guard and 22 years as an assistant, the Orange had never lost more than four consecutive games.
It happened five times during Hopkins’ tenure. Following each skid, Syracuse rebounded and finished with at least 22 wins, including four trips to the NCAA tournament.
It remains to be seen if Hopkins and the Huskies can halt a six-game losing streak that ties for UW’s fourth longest in the past 65 years.
“This is the first for everybody,” said Hopkins, the reigning two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year award winner who inherited a team that had a 9-22 record the season before his arrival in 2017. “When we took over, you had a group of guys that felt (losing).
“So you had to teach them what it’s not supposed to feel like. When you’re older and with more experience, it’s different than when you haven’t experienced it and experiencing it for the first time.”
This season wasn’t supposed to unwind this way.
Not with two projected first-round NBA draft picks in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels highlighting an incoming recruiting class that ranked 10th nationally and preseason talk of a Final Four finish.
Since their promising 10-2 start, the Huskies are 2-10.
And since crushing USC by 32 points on Jan. 5, Washington (12-12, 2-9) is 1-8 heading into Thursday’s 6 p.m. rematch against the Trojans (17-7, 6-5) at Galen Center.
“Kids are still fighting,” Hopkins said. “That’s the most important thing. You gotta play hard and you’ve gotta believe. With youth that’s the hardest thing.
“As coaches, this is new for me too. It’s like, what can you do? You’ve got to go back to your foundation, you’ve got to go back to your North Star, and who are we?”
That’s a great question without an easy answer.
The Huskies are still rediscovering their offensive identity since losing point guard Quade Green, who is academically ineligible.
During its first seven Pac-12 games, Washington held teams to an average of 59.3 points, 34.8 percent shooting from the floor and 26.8 percent three-point shooting.
In the past four games, UW opponents are averaging 79.3 points while shooting 43 percent from the field and 33 percent behind the arc.
“In terms of analytics in the last two years, we’ve been the No. 1 defense in the league,” Hopkins said. “We’re not that right now. That’s one thing that you can control. That’s not you making a basket. That’s being aware. That’s being focused on it. So we’ve got to do a better job coaching that and holding them accountable to that.
“On the flip side, we’ve got to believe. That’s a huge part.”
At this point last season, the Huskies were 19-5 overall and 10-1 in the Pac-12 with a 2½-game first-place lead.
Back then, Hopkins was spreading mousetraps around Alaska Airlines Arena while preaching “Don’t eat the cheese” as a reminder to players to stay grounded and avoid buying into the hype surrounding the team.
These days, Hopkins has been doing a lot of soul searching, confidence building and reflecting on his time with former UW football coach Chris Petersen.
“I’ve got a great staff, I’ve got a great family (and) I’ve got great faith,” Hopkins said. “You’ve got to get into, why do I coach? You coach to develop young men and you’re trying to give them the strategies to be successful and a plan.
“Sometimes as a coach, I feel like I let them down, the fans and everything. You get this great crowd, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the kids. It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”
Only seven regular-season games remain in one of the most baffling and potentially disappointing UW seasons in recent memory and Hopkins is running out time and solutions.
He’s switched lineups in each of the past five games. He’s benched McDaniels in three of the past four games. He started freshman sharpshooter RaeQuan Battle twice in the past four games, but played him less than a minute in Sunday’s loss at Washington State.
Seemingly, the Huskies will once again rely heavily on backup forward Nate Roberts who was effective against USC’s big front line but has played sparingly in the past eight games.
Hopkins said he’s been forced to constantly tinker with the lineups and rotations because of a lack of consistency.
“The biggest word here is simplistic and consistent,” he said. “The consistency is what we’re looking for. The message needs to be consistent.”
The eternally optimistic Hopkins loves slogans and anecdotes and lately he’s been telling the Huskies to “burn the boats” while spewing tales about Vikings and conquering islands.
“The story was the Vikings … whenever they would try to take over an island they would get off the boat, they would get on the island and they would burn their boats,” Hopkins said. “That meant full commitment moving forward.
“And they were either going to die or they were going to take over the island, rebuild boats to get back. So the biggest thing for us is focus on full commitment to each other, full commitment to this is how we play and that’s the best way to get out of this little rut and finish strong.”