The Huskies will host Belmont and will look to end the 13-game losing streak it ended last season.
Mike Hopkins vividly remembers the last time he coached a game that counted in the standings.
It was Jan. 5, 2016 and the final time he filled in for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who was serving a nine-game suspension due to NCAA rules violations.
“We had a foul shot with 14 seconds to go up four and we missed it,” Hopkins said while describing the final moments in regulation of a 74-73 overtime loss to Clemson. “Timeout. We were going to foul. They go inside, they go out and hit a three. It was a defensive breakdown. … Some things you never forget.”
On Friday night, Hopkins returns to the sideline once again.
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But this time, he won’t be the interim head coach or the coach in waiting — titles he held at Syracuse.
Hopkins makes his official debut as Washington men’s basketball coach against Belmont at Alaska Airlines Arena in a 7 p.m. regular-season nonconference opener that fulfills a lifelong dream, although many expected he would be guiding the Orange and not the Huskies to start the 2017-18 season.
“At Syracuse when they named me the next head coach, I’d been preparing for that for 10 years,” said Hopkins, who also served as a co-head coach of the 2012 USA Basketball Select team that trained against the USA team that won a gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“For me, it’s how can we get this team — not the Syracuse team and not a USA basketball team — but how do we get this team right,” Hopkins said. “From those experiences, I do know that you’ve got to play exceptionally hard with a sense of urgency and you’ve got to play together. And that’s defensively and offensively.”
It’s difficult to draw many conclusions from Hopkins’ bumpy 32-day tenure at the helm in Syracuse when he compiled a 4-5 record that began with a heartbreaking 79-72 loss to rival Georgetown and included three straight wins followed by three consecutive defeats.
Sure, it was the first time the 22-year Orange assistant made the important in-game decisions such as timeouts and substitutions, but he was more caretaker than coach who kept the seat warm until his mentor returned.
It’s interesting to note that Hopkins was far more demonstrative as interim head coach at Syracuse than he was in Washington’s 91-87 win last week against Division II Saint Martin’s.
With the Orange, Hopkins typically discarded his suit jacket, loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves and barked orders while marching up and down the sideline.
“It just felt right,” he said. “I’m a feel guy.”
Against Saint Martin’s, Hopkins kept the suit jacket on. He barely yelled and often sat on the bench even when the Huskies fell behind by nine points midway in the second half.
“I was really, really calm,” he said. “It was surreal. And everything that I ever dreamt of.”
Midway in the game, Hopkins walked near midcourt before an official directed him to remain in the coaching box. He playfully stepped over and back of the white line on the sideline a few times, which drew a chuckle from many in the UW student section.
“In the nine games (at Syracuse), I stood up a lot,” Hopkins said. “This time I sat down a lot and tried to be calm. At the end of the day, they take on the personality of their coach. So sometimes it’s time to light them up, and sometimes you say everything is going to be all right.
“They’re learning about me and I’m learning about them. It was the first time under the lights. We played at Boise State (in a closed scrimmage), and we were fine. And that’s what we’ve got to get back to. I don’t know if it was being at home for the first time or in front of the families.”
Hopkins is eager to see how the Huskies will perform against Belmont, which finished 23-7 last season and was picked for the third straight year to win the Ohio Valley Conference.
He also acknowledged there’s still a lot of uncertainty about a Washington team that was 9-22 last season and finished with a 13-game losing streak.
Following the exhibition win in which the Huskies scrapped their newly implemented 2-3 zone and relied on a trapping press to spark the comeback, the UW coaches stayed in their offices until 2:30 a.m. breaking down the video.
“The positives from that game is they found a way,” Hopkins said. “I wanted to win. Zone or no zone, I don’t care. … We were trying to do everything we can to win. I have no ego in this.”