During the past two seasons, Mike Hopkins has taken shots from Huskies detractors for being too rigid in his beliefs and devoted to the zone defensive principles he learned during his 22-year stint as a player and assistant at Syracuse.
The criticism isn’t without merit considering the Washington men’s basketball team’s dramatic decline from Pac-12 regular-season champion in 2019 to a last-place conference finish in 2020 and the 3-13 overall and 2-9 Pac-12 records of this season.
Still, the rebukes often don’t take into account Hopkins’ willingness to mix up defensive coverages last season and rely on an ample amount of man-to-man schemes, which helped UW exploit mismatches with departed stars Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, Hopkins characterized the use of the man-to-man schemes as “a one-time thing that had mixed results” while reaffirming his commitment to UW’s 2-3 zone.
However, near the end of a horrific 1-11 start, Hopkins tinkered with Washington’s defense once again and implemented a matchup zone, which combines elements of the man-to-man and zone schemes.
The defensive switch went into effect Jan. 16 at Pauley Pavilion when Washington nearly upset Pac-12 leader UCLA before losing 81-76.
In their next two games, the Huskies credited a rejuvenated offensive attack and their newfound defensive adjustments for a pair of victories that snapped an eight-game losing streak.
At the time, Hopkins admitted the Huskies still were allowing far too many points. But Washington, which ranked last in the Pac-12 in rebounding differential and opponents’ three-point field goal percentage, had at least fixed its most urgent problems.
“On the defensive end, we got to keep getting better,” Hopkins said after an 83-79 victory against Utah. “Tonight, we tried something a little different in the second half, which I thought really helped.
“Being able to have a change-up and a fastball is going to be really good for us as we move forward.”
It was good for a while, until it wasn’t.
Last Sunday, Washington State exploited mismatches inside while outscoring the Huskies 42-22 in the paint and crushing UW 48-28 on the glass during a 77-62 victory.
And Thursday, Oregon State exploited the outer reaches of Washington’s zone while draining 11 of 24 three-pointers to hand the Huskies their second consecutive defeat — a 91-71 setback.
Hopkins hinted at more defensive adjustments heading into the 1 p.m. matchup Saturday against Oregon (9-4, 4-3) at Matthew Knight Arena.
“We made the adjustment defensively against UCLA and it worked for 3½ games and now, the scouting report, right?” Hopkins said. “They start to find ways to hurt it. Now we’ve got to be able to counter punch defensively. We’re putting Band-Aids on holes in terms of what we had in the past defensively. And we got to do better.”
It would be difficult for Washington to do worse.
In Pac-12 games, the Huskies rank last in the league in scoring defense (82.5 points per game), 11th in defensive field goal percentage (46.7%) and 11th in rebounding margin (minus-8.5).
Washington’s troubles are more pronounced on the road where it’s 0-9 this season and allowing 87.1 points against seven Pac-12 teams.
Since Hopkins’ arrival in 2017, UW is 13-39 and 2-10 this season when allowing opponents at least 75 points.
It’s a disturbing trend considering Oregon ranks second in the league while scoring 75.6 points a game. In their previous matchup, the Ducks beat the Huskies 74-71 at Alaska Airlines Arena on Dec. 12.
“We’re breaking down (and) we’re getting into early foul trouble,” Hopkins said. “They’re trying to go down into the post. We’re not giving any type of resistance.
Hopkins added: “You can’t have where they score in the post and they shoot threes. It’s kind of like the give and take. We’ve been working on different ways to do it, but it’s new and they’re exposing that.”