The Huskies seem to have wholeheartedly bought into Mike Hopkins' zone defense after initially questioning whether the scheme would work. The result has been a 7-0 Pac-12 start and 10 consecutive victories for the Huskies, who hope to continue the streak against USC Wednesday night.
You can see the transformation happening before your very eyes.
Initially, Washington’s men’s basketball team incorporated Mike Hopkins’ defensive principles – but perhaps a bit woodenly. Then over time they embraced, and slowly perfected, them.
Now, the Huskies embody Hopkins’ defensive mindset.
And so when Washington found itself tied with Oregon late in the game last week in Eugene, absolutely needing a defensive stop, there was total belief that they were going to accomplish it.
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“There was no doubt in any of our minds we were going to get a stop, because we pride ourselves on defense,’’ said senior Noah Dickerson. “That’s what we do. No matter what happens on offense, whether the ball goes in the basket or not, on the other end we know our defense is what wins us games. So we knew we were going to get a stop.”
Sure enough, the Huskies got two of them, on consecutive possessions, leading to Jaylen Nowell’s eventual game-winning free throws. And the defensive buy-in just dug itself that much deeper into their basketball souls.
If you want to know why the Huskies, unbeaten in conference heading into Wednesday’s home game against USC, are the scourge of the Pac-12 and one of the hottest teams in the nation, it’s not really a mystery.
“There’s no secret sauce,’’ Dickerson said. “Defense. That’s what it is.”
All of which is music to the ears of Hopkins. His single-minded goal since inheriting a beaten-down Husky program last year was to inculcate into his players the same single-minded zone defense principles that led Syracuse to such success in his previous life.
Initially, of course, there was skepticism. Hopkins recalled their earliest practices last year when, after he explained players’ roles in the zone, they would counter, “But if we do that, they’re going to do this.”
The beauty of zone defense, he would eventually convey, is the adjustments. And what makes that work is that most teams may have dozens of plays to attack man-to-man defense, but only a handful to go against the rarely used zone. So eventually, Hopkins and his staff taught them the antidote for every contingency and watched it take hold, most resoundingly in their upset win over Kansas.
“That’s where you started seeing the belief,’’ he said. “And when you started seeing the belief, it was fun. They’d go, “That works!” You’d kind of get juiced a bit.”
It was exciting to teach, said Hopkins, who wears his excitement for the world to see. And he sensed it was exciting for his players to learn – especially as success bred more success. It was thus gratifying when Oregon State assistant coach Stevie Thompson, Hopkins’ old teammate at Syracuse, called him up after Washington’s win over the Beavers to compliment him on the Huskies’ frenetic defense.
That’s not to say the Huskies are home free. They are dominating a demonstrably weak conference, for one thing. And they got a taste last year of what can happen when you start to believe you’ve arrived. Hopkins is hammering home the need to stay as gritty as they were on the rise.
“Stay humble, hungry and wise,’’ he tells his players, constantly. And Hopkins drills this into them as well: “They’re coming after you.” Suddenly, the Huskies are everyone’s target as they sit atop the Pac-12.
But the beauty of hard-nosed, oppressive defense is that it travels well – especially when Husky players have long ago been convinced of the wonders of the 2-3 zone.
“Toward the middle of last year, I think everyone started to get used to it,’’ Dickerson said. “We just had to nitpick and tighten up a few things. But I think the fact we have everyone coming back and everyone already knew what we were supposed to do, I knew from the start of the season our defense was going to be a problem.”
Hopkins’ mentor, Jim Boeheim, had a ready answer whenever the zone defense’s efficacy was questioned. For most teams, the zone is merely a secondary defense, used only to give opposing teams a different look, maybe slow down the tempo. But whenever their foe hit a three-point shot or two, most teams would immediately abandon the zone.
“His philosophy, which became my philosophy,’’ Hopkins related, “was that when teams play man (and struggle), they say, ‘We have to play better man.’ So we play zone and say, ‘We have to play better zone.’’
For the soaring Huskies, that mindset has been a ticket to the top of the Pac-12.