Here we go again.
Once more, Mike Hopkins takes the Washington Huskies on the road to face a formidable nonconference foe in a measuring-stick game that will surely have repercussions in March when the NCAA tournament committee is selecting and seeding teams for the Big Dance.
Hopkins, the reigning two-time Pac-12 coach of the Year, has worked wonders since arriving on Montlake and leading the struggling program back to prominence faster than anyone believed possible.
And yet, Washington has routinely fallen short in matchups such as Friday’s 6 p.m. season opener in Anchorage, Alaska, against No. 16 Baylor, a Big 12 powerhouse that’s receiving preseason buzz as a Final Four contender.
“No question there’s a heavy weight on what you do in November, especially in NCAA tournament time, and quite frankly last year we weren’t able to knock off the teams that we had to,” Hopkins said, referring to UW’s No. 9 seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament. “But I really believe the NCAA took into consideration not only the great conference that we play in, but that we weren’t afraid to play anybody.
“That’s what these games are all about. Win or lose, they make you better. You’re callused going into your league. When you play the best and put yourself in tough situations, it’s a benefit that pays off at some time.”
The Huskies are still collecting residuals from its shocking 74-65 upset over No. 2 ranked Kansas in Kansas City, Mo., two years ago.
It’s arguably the biggest regular-season win against a nonconference opponent in UW history, but since knocking off the Jayhawks the Huskies are 0-4 in regular-season games against ranked teams.
It was the closest UW would get to a signature victory last season considering it didn’t put up much of a fight during an 88-66 loss at No. 11 Auburn and a 73-61 defeat against No. 13 Virginia Tech in Atlantic City, N.J.
Because of its unspectacular nonconference performance, Washington needed a remarkable 15-3 run en route to the Pac-12 regular-season championship to snap a seven-year NCAA tournament drought.
The Huskies weren’t the only Pac-12 team that got off to a slow start last season, which explains why the league received just three bids to the NCAA tournament, including Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon (No. 12 seed) and Arizona State (No. 11).
“The teams in this conference need to win and win big in November and December,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said weeks ago at the Pac-12 Media Day. “Quite frankly, we haven’t done enough of that.
“Certainly, you don’t want to be upset and take care of the games you’re supposed to win, but maybe even more important in the day and age of the NET rankings is winning those big nonconference games.”
According to the NET rankings, the NCAA’s metric to rank teams, Washington was 0-3 in the nonconference against Quadrant 1 or top-tier opponents.
And Pac-12 teams were 5-27 in nonconference games against Quad 1 opponents with Arizona State (3-1), Oregon (1-3) and Arizona (1-3) notching the only wins.
“We’ve dug a hole for ourselves,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “And the only way to get out of it is winning.
“So let me be the first to say, I’m the biggest Washington fan in November. I’m an Oregon fan and a Utah fan. For the sake of the conference, we have to fare better in the nonconference than we have.”
In addition to Baylor, Washington plays Tennessee in Toronto on Nov. 16 and hosts No. 8 Gonzaga on Dec. 8.
They’re the type of marquee early-season matchups that college basketball fans craze and a chance to measure heralded Huskies Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels against the best in college basketball.
The touted UW freshman forwards turned in satisfying performances during last week’s 87-63 exhibition win, but Division II Western Washington doesn’t possess the firepower of a Baylor team that drained 18 three-pointers during its season-opening 105-61 win against Central Arkansas.
The Bears, which posted a 20-14 record last season, return a veteran team led by sophomore guard Jared Butler, who scored 30 points in the opener, and junior forward Tristan Clark, who is returning from knee injury.
“Baylor is the best non-Kansas team from the Big 12 to bet on being a legitimate Final Four threat,” wrote CBSsports.com’s Kyle Boone, who picked the Bears to emerge as an NCAA tournament semifinalist.
Washington, which has four new starters including guards Nahziah Carter and Kentucky transfer Quade Green, is also a dark horse contender to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.
“My fourth team? Washington,” college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman said in a video for Stadium when asked his Final Four picks. “The Pac-12 is relevant again.”
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” he said. “We’re just really young, inexperienced. We have a lot to prove.
“It’s great what everybody says, but the only truth and proof is what happens on that court. We have some great opportunities this year, and we’re just focused on getting better every day. Doesn’t matter, get better. Doesn’t matter, get better. Very simple.”