The Washington men’s basketball team has been hide-your-eyes hideous in 2020-21, and until Saturday’s valiant near-win at UCLA, it was hard to see it getting much better.
While we wait to see if that performance was an aberration or, as Quade Green said after the game, a new start for Washington, the question framing the Huskies’ season has changed. At first, when they got blown out both by powerhouse Baylor and middling Big West squad UC Riverside, followed shortly by an ignominious loss to Montana of the Big Sky, the apt query was: “Can Mike Hopkins figure out a way to turn this around?”
But now, as the losses mount, a new question must be asked: “Can Hopkins survive this debacle?”
He might, indeed, but not necessarily by virtue of merit. The Huskies are in the process of one of the worst seasons not just in school history, but conference history. Their 81-76 loss to Pac-12-leading UCLA — easily their best performance of the season, considering the opponent — dropped their record to 1-11. Their lone win was over Seattle University, which has been followed by eight consecutive losses. The previous worst Husky season, the lamentable 5-22 mark in Bob Bender’s first season as coach in 1993-94, is in real danger of being surpassed.
That’s the clinical summation, but it’s actually worse than that. Seven of the Huskies’ 11 defeats have been by 10 points or more, four by 20 points or more, and one by 34 (to No. 2 Baylor). They have given up 80 points or more in six consecutive games — an indictment of a coach who built his reputation as a practitioner of Jim Boeheim’s diabolical Syracuse zone defense.
If you need further evidence of that fact, consider that, heading into the UCLA game, they ranked 321st in the country (out of 338 Division I schools) in defensive rebounds per game (22.55), 330th in rebounding margin (minus-9 per game), 318th in assist/turnover ratio, 286th in scoring defense (76.5 points allowed per game), 307th in scoring offense (63.7) and 320th in scoring margin (minus-12).
The Huskies sat 228th in the country in RPI (right behind 0-6 Alcorn State), 158th in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index (right behind Montana, which is 2-3 in the Big Sky), 154th in the Sagarin Rankings and 147th in the Pomeroy Rankings.
They have been, to put it bluntly, one of the very worst basketball teams in the country this season, by any measure. But this is a case where your eyes tell the story most succinctly. The UCLA game notwithstanding, they have looked woefully overmatched in every aspect of the game, almost every time on the court.
Perhaps this performance against the Bruins, in which they led by 12 points late in the first half and attempted a three-pointer to tie in the final seconds, will mark a turnaround. Hopkins certainly earned some patience with his first two seasons at Washington, which resulted in a pair of Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards. But that reservoir of goodwill is evaporating rapidly — which is painful to say about a stand-up guy who once seemed to have an unlimited future in Hec-Ed.
In fact, the burning question that fans fretted over early in his tenure was whether Hopkins would be lured back to his alma mater, Syracuse, when his mentor Boeheim — now 76 — finally retires. Hopkins, after all, was once the officially designated coach-in-waiting at Syracuse, until Husky athletic director Jen Cohen brought him to Washington mere days after firing Lorenzo Romar.
Romar got the boot after a 9-22 season — a record that this version of the Huskies would no doubt eagerly settle for. Romar, in turn, got the job after Bender was fired following an 11-18 season in 2001-02, and Romar produced six NCAA tournament appearances — but none in his final six years.
Cohen had to wrestle with whether the rut the Husky program had fallen into under Romar justified paying the $3.2 million buyout of his contract. She ultimately decided affirmatively.
But the question facing her now is more daunting. Partly to ensure that Hopkins wouldn’t bolt to Syracuse or anywhere else, Cohen locked up Hopkins with a six-year, $17.5 million extension in March 2019 while the Huskies were in Columbus, Ohio, to play Utah State in their first NCAA tournament game in eight years. (They won, but were ousted in the second round by North Carolina.)
It was a halcyon time for Hopkins, who had led the Huskies to the Pac-12 regular-season title with little foreshadowing of the troubles to come. Since starting last season 10-2 behind two future first-round draft picks, Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart, the Huskies have gone 6-26. And with just one prominent recruit committed for next year — four-star center Jackson Grant of Olympia — the prospects for a rapid revival are not robust.
But once this season ends, a guaranteed $12.2 million of Hopkins’ reworked contract will remain. A buyout of that magnitude would be an extremely tough sell in this economic climate, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on athletic-department budgets, including Washington’s.
So, yes, I expect Hopkins to survive this season even if it continues to unravel. He would then have an opportunity to figure out how to make the program thrive again, as it did when he took Romar holdovers such as Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson and David Crisp, added prized recruit Jaylen Nowell and transformed the Huskies into a cohesive, dangerous squad.
But even if Hopkins does survive the misery of 2020-21, that introduces a new question: If things don’t turn around, how much longer?