The rapidly improving Huskies are in third place in the Pac-12, a feat not even many of the players would have thought possible.
This, said Mike Hopkins, is precisely what he envisioned when he took over the beleaguered Washington basketball program back in March.
Alaska Airlines Arena was packed and rocking, the Dawg Pack was frenetic, and the Huskies were playing with precision, poise and passion, blowing out Washington State. All Hopkins’ homilies and slogans were coming to life on Sunday night before his very eyes — “a thing of beauty” is how he put it — and at more than one point, the coach admitted, he felt chills.
“That’s what I always dreamt it would be like,’’ Hopkins said. “I was happy we gave them something.”
The Huskies have given their fans so much more than anyone with an ounce of realism could have ever expected. Their 80-62 rout over Washington State left them standing alone in third place in the Pac-12; if you predicted that from the team that won just two conference games last year and then saw most of their touted recruiting class de-commit after Lorenzo Romar’s firing, well, you were one step ahead of his players.
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Here’s Noah Dickerson’s frank answer when I asked if, way back at the beginning of preseason practices, he could have envisioned the Husky team we’ve seen, the one percolating so well on both ends Sunday and getting better with each performance.
“No,’’ he said.
Chimed in Matisse Thybulle: “I would have been skeptical if someone told me.”
“One-hundred percent,’’ retorted Dickerson, sitting next to Thybulle on the podium after the game. “Coming back with a new coach, things like that. Statistically speaking, it says new coaches don’t win and there’s kind of a little grace period. But we came out, we figured out what we needed to do, and we did it.”
Hopkins has done an extraordinary job in coaxing buy-in from the team that won just two conference games last year and was 9-22 overall. Hopkins’ belief in the system he brought with him from Syracuse is absolute, and he’s sold that to his players with a preacher’s zeal. Hopkins called it “one of the most consistent winning systems in the history of college basketball. It’s been proven by the great James Arthur Boeheim.”
Everyone knew Boeheim could win with the 2-3 zone he’s perfected over decades, but that didn’t necessarily mean his longtime assistant could. But Hopkins is proving to be a deft strategist and a master motivator, as well as an effective teacher. Players are not just accepting their roles, but embracing them, with Hopkins using point guard David Crisp as Exhibit A.
Thybulle had the flashy game on Sunday with 18 points, six assists and four steals. Freshman Jaylen Nowell is a presence every night and had 14 points in this one with nine rebounds. Dickerson added 13 points and six rebounds. But Hopkins said that he got in front of the team last week and called Crisp their Tom Brady, their engine.
“He’s the extension I need as a coach, the voice,’’ Hopkins said. “He sacrificed a lot. He’s a scoring guard who’s playing a completely different role, and he’s the key, guys. Watch the games. He’s finding guys, he’s pushing it, he’s poised, he’s playing great defense. He’s playing to win.”
That last is the ultimate Hopkins compliment, and it increasingly applies up and down the roster. You can sense a team that is beginning to realize that something special is happening here.
“I think every game we just believe more and more — in the coaches and each other,’’ said Thybulle. “That belief has taken us a pretty far ways, and it just gets deeper and our chemistry gets stronger, and we’re just getting better every game.”
To Hopkins, that belief manifests itself with an extra pass to create a better shot, or increased defensive intensity, or a lightning-quick fastbreak after each blocked shot or rebound.
“It starts to flow, it’s momentum, it’s contagious,” he said.
And when it’s accompanied by the sort of full-throated roar that marked Husky basketball in Romar’s heyday but which had slowly dimmed with each passing tournament-free season, well, that’s when Hopkins says he can see the confidence grow on his kids’ faces.
“It’s just building, and that wave just keeps building and building and building and building and building and building and building,’’ he said.
For the record, that’s eight “buildings” in one sentence, and the number might have grown if Hopkins didn’t have film to watch. There’s no doubt that the crowd’s enthusiasm is being noted by the players, particularly those who suffered through last year’s desultory effort.
“It was a good game tonight, and I’ve got to say the most gratifying part was to see all the fans coming back,’’ said Thybulle. “It’s been a couple of years — more than a couple of years since we’ve had sellout games and consistently a high turnout, and I think if we can keep having that, our season will keep getting stronger.”
It’s strong enough that whispers are starting to be hard about Washington completing the ultimate longshot turnaround and actually making the NCAA tournament. Hopkins feels his job for now is to keep those whispers from becoming a roar, because that would only be a distraction. Yet he’s also savvy enough to realize that’s probably impossible in the age of social media and bracketology.
“We live in that world,’’ he said. “I’m sure the kids will talk about it. But I think the way that we motivate — we played a team tonight, they’re fighting for their lives. We’re all fighting for our lives. If you don’t match that, you can get beat on any given night. That is a fact.
“Regardless of what’s written or what’s not, we’re not there. … It’s based on your résumé, not what it could be.”
The Husky resume, nearly halfway through the Pac-12 season, is far more impressive than anyone could have imagined. And they’re starting to believe it’s only going to get better.