After a bunch of geographically-oriented opponents presented harder-than-expected challenges, the Washington men’s basketball team faces what figures to be its toughest test at 8 p.m. Thursday against Wyoming to conclude a four-game homestand.
The Cowboys (2-0) have scored 85 points in each of their first two games, including a 28-point win over Detroit Mercy and a 30-point drubbing against Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
“Wyoming is a really good team,” said UW coach Mike Hopkins, who noted Wyoming has converted 17 of 42 three-pointers this season. “They’re a better offensive team than (the teams we’ve faced). They score. They shoot a lot of threes. They take 25 threes a game. It’s going to be a different type of game plan.”
Washington (2-1) has allowed teams to connect on 18 of 53 three-pointers (34%), which appears to be a cause for concern considering UW’s 2-3 defense is predicated on shutting down opponents’ perimeter attack.
But dig a little deeper and the Huskies have made measurable progress on the defensive end.
In a season-opening 71-64 loss to Northern Illinois, UW surrendered 12 of 23 three-pointers, including six to NIU sharpshooter Trendon Hankerson, who finished with 28 points.
But in the past two games, UW opponents are 6 of 30 from downtown.
Washington held Northern Arizona to 4 of 12 from long range in a 73-62 win while Texas Southern connected on just 2 of 18 from deep in a 72-65 UW win on Monday.
Spurred by its full-court press, the Huskies rank first in the Pac-12 with 30 steals while four UW players are among the top 14 in the conference in thefts. Daejon Davis and PJ Fuller are co-leaders with seven steals, Terrell Brown Jr. is tied for fourth with five while Jamal Bey is tied for seventh with four.
To be sure, the Huskies have gradually improved defensively, but a team that’s incorporating seven newcomers and three new starters is still struggling on the offensive end where they rank last in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (33.9%) and three-point percentage (26.4%).
According to KenPom, UW is ranks 333rd nationally while shooting 33.3% on shots inside the arc.
“The first game, I felt a little bit like we were stressed,” Hopkins said. “Like everybody wanted to do great and that’s when you shoot poorly. Everybody was trying to do it themselves. It’s like having a new dance partner. You got to gain confidence and rhythm with each other.
“Game 2 we only had one day of prep, so a little bit more bench. We played some pretty good defense. The small lineup came in and did what they did. We made foul shots at the end. And (Monday’s) game, I felt like our offense got a lot better. We shared it. We spaced it. We made the extra pass. And that’s how we’re going to win.”
It’s too early to make definitive statements about Washington, which finished 5-21 last season and 11th in the Pac-12 at 4-16.
Still, Brown has been an early standout.
The senior guard who transferred from Arizona ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring (17.7 points) and fourth in assists (4.3).
Hopkins likened Brown to former Husky star Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2019 — capable of taking over games at the end with his ability to score, draw fouls and make plays for teammates.
“He’s pretty darn good,” he said. “He can score. He can get a bucket. … He can make the right play. He’s a helluva player. Daejon makes great plays at the end of the shot clock. And when you have two guys that are really good ball handlers and decision makers, you got a chance.”
With the game on the line Monday, the Huskies gave the ball to Brown, who responded with a 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting. He also had all nine of UW’s assists.
“I’m fine with it, but whoever has got it going is going to end the game for us,” Brown said when asked if he’s comfortable being UW’s closer. “If Daejon has it going, I have no issue giving him the ball. PJ, Emmitt (Matthews Jr.), Langston (Wilson), Jamal or whoever. They can all score. … But I’m comfortable with it.”
“I’m comfortable with him too,” Davis said smiling.