A week ago, Mike Hopkins told one of his favorite stories that gives insight into his always-optimistic approach and encapsulates his undying love of March Madness.
“When I was at Syracuse and we weren’t in the NCAA tournament, we were the first team to go into the Big East tournament and win four games,” Hopkins said. “It was Gerry McNamara’s great run. The game-winner against Cincinnati, then Connecticut, the number-one team in the country.
“And then we ended up beating Georgetown and Pittsburgh, teams we struggled with that year. The biggest thing was that first win. Somebody stepping up and making a big play, and with that, build some momentum. And with that momentum, it carries and belief starts building. I’ve seen it happen. There’s that magic, there’s that belief.”
This story is relevant as Hopkins leads No. 12 Washington (15-16, 5-13 Pac-12) against No. 5 Arizona (20-11, 10-8) in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.
Every game is a loser-out scenario for the Huskies who need to run the table with four straight wins at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas in order to secure an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“Honestly, we’ve been playing like every game is our last for quite some time now,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been in survive-and-advance mode these last couple of weeks just trying to scratch and claw to get a win.”
Washington lost nine straight games – its second longest losing streak in school history – before ending the season with three wins in its last four games.
Despite a series of disappointments, Hopkins said the Huskies never wavered in their belief that they’re still the same team that began the season with Final Four aspirations and was ranked in the top-25 poll.
“But like every team with young guys, you sometimes need good things to happen to reaffirm those beliefs and renew that confidence,” he said in reference to last week’s wins at Arizona State and Arizona. “Hopefully we got that last week. I saw a spark that I don’t want to say was missing, but we played 40 minutes of basketball in multiple games.
“The ball was moving and popping. We were sharing it. We had life and energy. … And we got major contributions from everywhere on the roster. Those are good signs moving forward.”
Hopkins called sophomore backup point guard Elijah Hardy “a spark plug” who gave the Huskies another playmaker to ignite an offense that scored a season-high 90 points last Thursday at Arizona State.
At times, Hardy worked in tandem with starting guards Marcus Tsohonis and Jamal Bey to stabilize a backcourt that’s been in free fall ever since point guard Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible on Jan. 9.
During the first 11 games without Green, the Huskies went 1-10.
“You can’t rush the process and with those guys in particular that’s especially true,” Hopkins said referring to UW’s young backcourt. “They needed time to make mistakes, learn and grow. That’s what young players do and we have to coach and guide them through that.
“Thankfully, they’re playing their best basketball lately and that’s allowed other guys to be at their best.”
In their past three wins, UW’s leading scorers Isaiah Stewart (16.6 points per game), Jaden McDaniels (13.1) and Nahziah Carter (12.5) have taken turns carrying the offense. Defensively, the Huskies held Arizona, the Pac-12’s highest scoring offense, to 13 points fewer than its average in their last outing.
“There’s some carryover from the season, but for the most part when you get to the postseason you throw all of that stuff out because it’s like you’re starting over,” Hopkins said. “Look, we are who we are. Teams in your conference know you at this point. Forget the Xs and Os, it’s about going out there and playing.”
Since the formation of the Pac-12 in 2011-12, only two teams have won four games at the conference tournament.
Colorado did it in 2012 as the No. 6 seed and Oregon captured the tournament title as a No. 6 seed last year.
The No. 12 seed is 1-8 all-time with the lone win coming in 2015 when USC upset over Arizona State, 67-64.
Perhaps fittingly, Washington opened as a +10000 long shot, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Still, the Huskies are 3-0 against Arizona in the conference tournament, including the 77-75 overtime win in 2011 in the Pac-10 Tournament title game.
“Look, we got as good a chance as anyone to win this seeing as how our conference has been so unpredictable this year,” Hopkins said. “All we can control is what we do and our approach and we haven’t stopped believing.
“Like I said, it starts with that first win. Gotta get that one and pour everything you got into that game. Prepare, believe and execute. Bottom line.”
— Green will not play Wednesday, but Hopkins didn’t rule out the possibility of him returning this week if UW makes a deep run in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“We’re just waiting for new information,” Hopkins said. “But we’re under the premise that he’s not going to be able to play in this tournament.”
— Due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, the Pac-12 will close locker rooms to the news media and any non-essential personnel. In addition, the Pac-12 Hall of Honor induction ceremony has been rescheduled. And the Pac-12 will leave it up to each school whether to allow bands and spirit squads to attend the tournament.