The Huskies get one last exhibition game against Seattle Pacific on Thursday before they begin the season ranked for the first time in four years.
One of the challenges every underperforming team needs to overcome on the climb back to the top of the sports heap is handling expectations.
Suddenly, the Washington men’s basketball team is dealing with the kind of distraction that coaches secretly crave and publicly loathe.
And it’s all due to the 25th-ranked Huskies return to the national top-25 polls for the first time in four years.
“I’m happy for the guys, but I also let the guys know that it means nothing,” said coach Mike Hopkins, who has about as much use for polls as UW football coach Chris Petersen. “There’s only one truth and that’s what happens inside the lines.
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“Now you have a target on your back. Now it’s a lot different. But if we can focus on the things we focus on and stay away from all the publicity and the hype … we’ll be fine.”
These are uncharted waters for the Huskies, who start the season ranked for the first time since 2011.
Before its Nov. 6 opener, Washington has one last tuneup at 7 p.m. Thursday against perennial Division II stalwart Seattle Pacific University at Alaska Airlines Arena.
It’s the final dress rehearsal for the Huskies, who had a smashing debut last week – a 91-73 exhibition victory at No. 7 Nevada.
Washington was nearly flawless while converting 61.7 percent of its field goals and holding the Wolf Pack to 38.8 percent shooting.
Still, Hopkins found areas to nitpick.
He’s hoping the Huskies can improve their rebounding and wants them sharing the ball offensively.
But barring a severe setback Thursday, Washington appears to be on track to build on its 21-win from last season.
“We wanted to play a high-level team early just to see where you’re at,” Hopkins said. “That’s what you try to do. You try to gauge it. I like going on the road. You also with the young guys learn how you operate and how you do things.
“Win or lose you learn either way. You get a chance to play against the best and see where you’re at.”
Perhaps the biggest concern is the status of senior forward Noah Dickerson, who suffered a minor leg injury weeks ago that forced him to sit out the Nevada exhibition.
Without their all-Pac-12 big man, the Huskies leaned heavily on sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell (26 points), senior guard David Crisp (20 points) and senior wing Matisse Thybulle (17 points, six rebounds, six assists, five steals and three blocks) against the Wolf Pack.
“To go into a place like that without Noah I thought was really, really positive,” Hopkins said. “It was great for our philosophy – next guy up. Next guy has got to be prepared to play.”
Dickerson is expected to play Thursday the optimism surrounding the Huskies is higher than it’s been in recent memory.
“I think it’s great for the fans, I think it’s great for alumni,” Hopkins said. “It’s great for people thinking geez this thing is moving forward. Great.
“But with our schedule and our league, you got to go out and prove it. Bottom line.”
To keep the Huskies level-headed, Hopkins points to last year’s 91-87 exhibition win over Division II Saint Martin’s in which UW needed to overcome an 11-point deficit.
With 9:17 left, Washington trailed 73-64 to the lower-tier Saints, who connected on 18-three-pointers.
“Last year in our first exhibition game we almost lost,” Hopkins said. “We were down (11). Anybody can beat you on any given night. You got to respect everybody.
“You got to come out and you got to execute the game plan and you got to do it together. If we do that, we proved it. We beat Kansas last year. We proved that if you don’t, you can lose to anybody.”