From 5-21 last season to 13-13 this season, coach Mike Hopkins has orchestrated an eight-game improvement of the Washington men’s basketball team with at least five games remaining.
But the question that loomed over the program during the past four months once again becomes pertinent heading into UW’s final homestand to end the regular season: Has Hopkins done enough to return next season?
The next seven days could ultimately decide his fate.
“I’ve been doubted my whole life,” Hopkins said weeks ago. “I was doubted as a player. I’m better in the underdog role. … I never take anything personal. I know the type of business that we’re in. I also know when you surround yourself with good people and you got talent, then anything is possible. That’s the greatest thing about sports.
“But here’s the thing, it’s never been about me. It’s always been about this team and how good can we be. You always want to keep improving and play your best at the end of the season.”
Since throttling Arizona State 87-64 on Feb. 10 in arguably its most dominant performance of the season, Washington has lost four straight games, including Wednesday’s 78-70 setback against Washington State at Beasley Coliseum.
UW is also just 1-5 in its past six games.
The late-season collapse started with three straight double-digit blowout defeats against ranked Pac-12 teams, which affirmed the Huskies’ position as a middle-tier team in the conference.
Washington and Washington State are tied for sixth in the Pac-12 at 8-8 and both teams are still clinging to hopes of a top-four league finish that guarantees a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.
Two weeks ago, the Huskies were fourth in the conference and if their skid continues, then they could finish ninth.
An eight-game losing streak would be less than ideal for Hopkins, who has already improved on UW’s 4-16 Pac-12 record last season.
Hopkins is 81-73 (.526) with the Huskies, including 42-38 (.525) in the Pac-12, which gives plenty of ammunition for folks on both sides of the debate on whether he should return.
Earlier this week, the 52-year-old former Syracuse assistant shot down reports that list him as a possible successor whenever legendary Orange coach Jim Boeheim retires.
“I think every day about getting our program at the University of Washington back to where we were two years ago,” Hopkins said in a Zoom interview Monday. “Syracuse built me and gave me the opportunity to do what I do here. Just so excited to get this place back to where it deserves to be. We work daily on trying to get that. That’s my focus day in and day out and hopefully we can end up strong here this season.”
A vocal contingent of Hopkins’ critics believe Washington should part ways with the two-time Pac-12 coach of the year who guided the Huskies to the Pac-12 regular-season title and the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2019.
Hopkins was heralded as a savior who resurrected a moribund program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2011 and was 9-22 the season before his arrival in 2017.
In his first 82 games, UW was 58-24 (.707) overall, including 25-11 (.694) in Pac-12 games. However, in the next 72 games the Huskies were 23-49 (.319), including 17-35 (.315) in conference games.
Any conversation about Hopkins’ future at Washington must include the $9.3 million and three years remaining on his contract.
And it should be noted that a few weeks ago, Hopkins and WSU’s Kyle Smith were Pac-12 coach of the year candidates behind Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd before their recent downturn.
Smith, who signed a two-year contract extension last September, is entrenched at Washington State while Hopkins seemingly remains on the hot seat.
“I absolutely think he should come back,” Pac-12 analyst Corey Williams said when asked about Hopkins. “When you look at what he and other college basketball coaches are dealing with in terms of COVID, the transfer portal and irregular recruiting, you can’t build a program like you did three or four years ago. In a perfect world should people be happy with .500? Probably not, but given the conditions they’ve had to deal with, they’ve fielded a competitive team for the most part.
“I think people don’t understand sometimes all the ins and outs of a program. They look at wins and losses, they look at what they would like and what they anticipate and make decisions. But Mike Hopkins in my opinion is one of the best young coaches in the country. He’s already proven by being Pac-12 coach of the year twice that his system works. I don’t think you abandon something that’s already been proven.”
In the 126-year history of the UW program, Mack Duckworth, who compiled a 53-74 record during a five-year tenure (1964-68), is the only coach to return after compiling three straight losing seasons.
Hopkins needs to split the next four games to avoid his third straight losing Pac-12 record.
Washington has a Monday matchup against No. 12 UCLA followed by Thursday’s pairing against Oregon and a March 5 regular-season finale versus Oregon State on Senior Night.
“It’s a really big week,” Williams said. “They need that big emotional win. They need that win that validates all the effort that you’ve been putting in since October. You beat your rival or you get an upset win against UCLA, then that’s going to be huge for that program.
“They’ve got the players to do it. They just need to catch lightning in a bottle and have that one feel-good win and I think a lot of this conversation will change.”
Barring a miraculous run in Las Vegas and a Pac-12 tournament title, Washington will miss the NCAA tournament for a third straight year. The Huskies are No. 130 in the NET rankings, the primary evaluating tool used by the selection committee to determine the 36 at-large berths to the Big Dance.
UW, which is 0-6 in Quad 1 games, will have three straight chances to capture its first Quad 1 victory starting with Washington State (15-12), which is No. 50 in the NET rankings.
The Huskies will likely have their second-leading scorer, Emmitt Matthews Jr., return on Saturday after he missed Wednesday’s game while in concussion protocol.
However, senior guard Daejon Davis is expected to miss his sixth straight game due to a right-shoulder injury.
“I don’t even want to think about nothing but Saturday, but we can definitely go on a run and finish this off the right way,” said junior guard PJ Fuller on Wednesday after scoring a career-high 23 points. “We just have to clean up some things on defense and rebounding. We can get these guys. This game was close.
“But four straight games at home, we’re looking forward to that.”