In his first year, Hopkins transformed a 9-22 Pac-12 bottom feeder into a 20-11 NCAA tournament contender.
Mike Hopkins isn’t ready to reflect on the storybook season he’s authored at Washington because there are still games to play – starting with a Pac-12 Tournament first-round matchup with Oregon State on Wednesday.
The Huskies men’s basketball coach doesn’t want any proverbial pat on the back for quickly restoring the program to relevance after a season win in which UW was 9-22 and 2-16 in conference games.
However, it’s difficult not to notice the transformation on Montlake by Hopkins who won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award in a vote by conference coaches.
“Numbers don’t lie,” said junior guard Matisse Thybulle, UW’s first Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner, who was one of a trio of Huskies to pick up postseason hardware on Monday.
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Junior forward Noah Dickerson was named first-team All-Pac-12 while Jaylen Nowell was selected to the All-Freshman team and received all-Pac-12 honorable mention honors.
“It goes back to you’re playing for something greater than yourselves,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes you might be the scorer. You might be the rebounder or you might be the defensive guy. You might be a guy on the bench. Everyone plays a significant role, but always for the betterment of the team, so definitely they are individual (awards), but they really are team accomplishments.”
The Huskies (20-11, 10-8) have made an 11-game improvement this season, which is the second most by a Power 5 conference team. It’s also the largest increase in wins between seasons for a UW team since the 1936-37 (15-11) and 1937-38 (29-7) seasons.
“Coach Hop is an amazing coach,” Dickerson said. “You can see what he’s done. … He turned what we used to know and turned us into something totally new – something different. It took us a little while, but we finally bought in. And you see at this point we’re 20-11. I don’t remember the last time I won this many games in a season.
“Twenty is a lot of games and 20-11 as a first-year head coach is pretty crazy, especially when you don’t have time to bring all new kids in and things like that and you just take over. So he’s done a great job with what he’s been given.”
Hopkins replaced Lorenzo Romar, who was fired after 15 seasons, and worked quickly to secure seven of eight possible returners not including UW freshman Markelle Fultz who earlier declared for the NBA draft and was taken No. 1 overall.
Admittedly, Dickerson had his doubts about Hopkins, who spent the previous 22 years as a Syracuse assistant, and considered transferring closer to his home in Atlanta.
“Like I said when I decided to come back, I trusted the coaching staff,” said Dickerson who averages 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. “I already trusted my teammates. I trusted the coaching staff and what they saw in me and our team and I stuck it out. And this is what happened.”
It would seem Nowell, the former Garfield High star and the only recruit from UW’s original top-five recruiting class who didn’t ask Hopkins for a release, also received vindication for his decision to stay home. The 6-4 freshman guard averages a team-high 16.0 points, which ranks second among Pac-12 freshmen.
And Thybulle, a who was chosen to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team, shattered Washington’s single-season steals record with 92 that ranks second in the nation. He’s also seventh in the conference with 44 blocks.
“These kids, they’ve really committed to the betterment of the team and they’ve given a little bit of themselves for the betterment of the team,” said the 47-year-old Hopkins who collects a $15,000 bonus for winning the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, which is a clause in the six-year, $12.3 million contract he signed last year. “We were able to win some games and have, so far, a successful season, with more to come hopefully.
“When that happens, good things happen. Wish there was 13 awards because I could give an award for everybody on the team. But obviously them being recognized is an accomplishment, it kind of acknowledges the commitment of their teammates.”
Hopkins joins Romar (2012, 2009, 2005), Bob Bender (1996) and Marv Harshman (1982, 1984) in being awarded the honor but is the first UW coach to take home the award in his first season.
Hopkins is also the sixth coach in conference history to win the league’s coach of the year award in his first season. The others include: Stanford’s Dick DiBiaso (1976), UCLA’s Gary Cunningham (1978), Oregon State’s Jim Anderson (1990), California’s Ben Braun (1997) and Washington State’s Tony Bennett (2007).
The Huskies were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 in a preseason media poll, but they put the college basketball world on notice following a 74-65 win against then-No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City, Mo.
Washington collected big Pac-12 wins against No. 9 Arizona, No. 25 Arizona State and USC to start 7-3 in the Pac-12. However, UW finished 3-5 down the stretch, including a 72-64 defeat to Oregon in last Saturday’s regular-season finale.
The Huskies fell to the No. 7 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament and likely needs 2-3 wins to revive their NCAA tournament chances.
“Hopefully we’ll have more winning ahead of us,” Hopkins said. “You see kids buy in and work hard. It’s always nice to be rewarded in those ways. So I’m happy and proud of ’em.”