As first impressions go, the Washington men’s basketball team showed the makings of a squad that’s significantly better than its predecessor.
Of course, improving on a team that finished with one of the worst records in school history isn’t that difficult, but if Thursday’s 83-50 exhibition win over Central Washington is any indication, then the Huskies will fare far better than last season when they were 5-21.
“We’ve got a good basketball team that’s in the early stages of development,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “We’re playing in a tough league and we’ve got some great nonconference games. We’ve got to focus on getting better every day and we should have a chance.”
It wasn’t enough for the UW to beat its Division II opponent, which was picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference by coaches.
Considering the boatload of questions and scrutiny surrounding Washington and its embattled coach, the Huskies needed a convincing performance from a revamped team that features seven newcomers.
On a night in which several players made their UW debuts, the Huskies were able to check a lot of boxes in a dominant outing that seemingly garnered a considerable amount of optimism from their staunchest critics who questioned whether Washington can regain its swagger following two consecutive losing seasons.
Hopkins unveiled a new opening lineup that included newcomers Terrell Brown Jr., Daejon Davis and Emmitt Matthews Jr. alongside returning starters Jamal Bey and Nate Roberts.
“I was nervous to be honest with you,” said Brown, the Seattle native and former Garfield High standout who played at Arizona last season. “I’ve never had butterflies, but I guess being back home … you get that nervous feeling. But once the game started, it was fun.”
On UW’s first possession, Brown drained a three-pointer and on the third offensive trip, Matthews brought the fans at Alaska Airlines Arena out of the seats with a steal and contested fastbreak dunk.
Washington, which led for most of the game, fell behind 10-8 before regaining control with a 13-0 run to go up 21-10.
Brown orchestrated the play of the game when he came off a screen and drew two defenders before dishing a nifty no-look pass over his head to freshman forward Jackson Grant, who flushed a two-handed jam for a 25-13 lead.
It was a rare perfectly executed play from the Huskies, who struggled offensively early on when they couldn’t score in transition or from turnovers.
In the first half, UW connected on 2 of 13 three-pointers, but was able to take a 29-17 lead into the break thanks to a stingy defense that held the Wildcats to 21.2% shooting from the field, including 3 of 12 behind the arc.
The Huskies built a barrier around the rim with Roberts (12 rebounds), Matthews (six rebounds and two blocks) and Grant (three blocks).
Defensively, Washington overpowered Central Washington, which tallied 90 points last week in an 18-point exhibition win over Lincoln University.
Offensively, the Huskies were at their best when Brown was on the court. He finished with a game-high 17 points, three rebounds and three assists, which offset three turnovers.
Matthews tallied 12 points while Bey and Davis each had 10.
Early in the second half Central Washington pulled to within 30-20 when Hopkins experimented with a full-court press that forced five straight turnovers, which led to 13 unanswered points and a subsequent 21-1 run.
“I did it for three years so it’s normal for me,” said Matthews, the West Virgina transfer. “I think we’re adjusting really well, the guys on the team. Kind of just taking it one day at a time and learning how to rotate.
“Trapping for a whole game is really hard to do full court. It’s not easy. You’re literally dog tired. But the team that we have and the depth that we have, we’re able to sub guys out and have the ability to do a good job at it.”
Brown’s layup at the 15:42 mark gave the Huskies a 51-21 lead and summarily gave Hopkins a chance to distribute extended playing time to a handful of UW reserves and empty the bench in the final minutes.
Near the end, backup guard PJ Fuller gave the fans one more opportunity to cheer when he tossed a pass off the glass to Langston Wilson, who flushed a crowd-pleasing two-handed jam.
It was the ninth dunk for the Huskies, who shot 47.7% from the field while holding CWU to 27.7% shooting and forcing 25 turnovers.
“We did some good things and we did some stuff that needs improvement for sure,” Brown said. “For the most part, I’m happy.”
Washington begins the season Tuesday against Northern Illinois, which starts a four-game homestand.