New UW men's basketball coach Mike Hopkins: 'I’m playing to win. The guys who can help us win in our system are playing.'

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With basketball practice underway, new Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins met with local reporters on Tuesday to discuss the 2017-18 season.

He touched on several topics, including his coaching philosophy, implementing the zone defense and expectations for a team that was 9-22 last season. He also recounted the time when freshman Jaylen Nowell re-committed to UW, which you have to see to believe.

Here’s everything Hopkins said during a nearly 30-minute press conference, which was his first at UW since taking the job in March.

(Opening statement) “Everything’s going good. The kids, from the day I got in, have worked really, really hard. They’ve really bought in to the culture of family, unselfish action, and playing together, those types of things. Very proud of the work that they’ve put in. It’s right around the corner, we’re really excited to get on that court and start playing. But the kids have really worked hard, we’re happy where we’re at right now.”

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(Have a feel for how competitive you’ll be?) “I think the biggest thing is, we’ve really focused on how we’re going to be day-to-day, the process of getting better. And that’s the standard of excellence every day. Everybody here is learning a new system. A lot of the players, they end up being freshmen again because they are learning – from our zone to our press – of how we’re going to play offensive, defensively. I think they’ve made the transition pretty smooth but we have, like any team this time of the year, going up and down. But very happy where we’re at right now.”

(The operations have to be different too.) “A lot of coaches, when they get jobs, bring staffs that they’ve worked together for years, so it’s not exactly smooth but it’s been pretty darn smooth because we have a great staff. But again, getting everybody on the same page and doing the right thing, from player development to administrative to recruiting, it’s all new. I know everybody says it but I really believe it: we have one of the best staffs in America. A lot of experience. They’ve got great knowledge. Two of them have had head coaching experience. Will Conroy is a young superstar who really gets it. The combination of being on the court and the connection with kids. I think the fun thing has been from day one when we did all the individual instruction was everybody together doing it. That’s been our motto, unselfish action and doing it together and tougher together. Right now I’m really happy about that. But we’re growing. It’s a process.”

(How difficult has it been to teach the zone defense to guys that maybe aren’t used to it?) “I’ve been doing it for a long time, so it’s been in the DNA. If you cut me, the zone would come out in my blood. But people think the defense is like little league baseball. But for the most part there’s a lot of little intricacies. There’s a lot of thought process. It’s good in a lot of ways because it’s against the grain…the ball gets in the high post and a lot of teams collapse, we go out. So there’s a lot of different training. They have 18, 19 years of habits going back, so if we’re 10 percent successful in terms of possessions, tomorrow we want to be 20 percent successful. But the kids are getting it and they are working hard at it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get but I think as we move forward we’ll keep getting better and better at it.”

(Do you think you have the players now to fit your system, or will you have to tweak things?) “I was really excited. I go back to, you look at the length and the athleticism, very similar. You look at a guy like Matisse Thybulle and Dominic Green…their length, their 7-foot wingspans. If you guys are familiar when we won it in 2003 (at Syracuse) we had a big center named Craig Forth, and Sam Timmins is a big guy, has great intelligence and plays. David Crisp is a high-level point guard. The young guys are always learning on the go, but thing I’m excited about is even when they struggle with it they want to learn more and they want to get it. For example we went probably for two hours and 15 minutes and we were pushing them, they weren’t getting it. They were tired, they were exhausted, and then the last 20-25 minutes was the best defensive stuff that we’ve done all year. There’s different situations…like anything you’ve got to start by crawling and then you’ve got to walk and then you’ve got to run and then you’ve got to sprint. If you looked at our practices right now I’m happy with the energy and effort, but it’s like the Dow Jones. You have your ups and downs.”

(Can you describe the type of zone you want to use? Sounds like it’s more of an attacking zone?) “We’ve talked a lot about tempo. We say ‘unrelentless attack’. One of the things that we’re going to do is control tempo. So we’ve infused not only the zone, being aggressive but trapping and also we’ve messed around with full-court and three-quarter traps to try and control the tempo. We just become unpredictable and we’re controlling the tempo, and that’s been my philosophy and something that we’re going to bring here.”

(And obviously rebounding is critical.) “You can play great defense for 25 seconds but it’s no good if you can’t retain that rebound. A lot of times in a zone defense that’s more in the half-court, you’re not really boxing out, you’re rebounding in areas. So you get a lot of habits where they try and hit guys and get themselves out of position, which has openings but again those are the learning parts you have to practice over and over and over and watch film. You’ve got to have uncommon preparation, and that’s what these kids have been doing.”

(What were the immediate needs you felt you had to address when you got here?) “Basketball-wise, defensively. At the end of the day you look at the Pac-12 – I always look at the Pac-12 numbers – and teams were shooting 49 percent from the field and 41 percent from the 3-point line. Those have to improve. Is that schematic, is that effort – whatever that may be – that’s the one thing you can control. Player development’s been a big part of what we brought here, with what we’re doing. Foul shooting…going back to basic fundamentals. Some of your best players can’t shoot 55 percent from the foul line, or 56. They’ve got to be at a higher percentage. I look at free throw numbers. For instance, Matisse Thybulle is as talented a player as there is in the country. Last year he averaged 10.6 points per game. In the Pac-12 he was one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. Not only that, he was one of our best foul shooters. He shot 84 percent. The problem was he went to the foul line less than one time per game. Part of it was almost like diagramming…Matisse, if we can get you – because you’re so athletic – in the middle of the paint, get some foul trouble, it puts pressure on the defense, you’re in an attacking mentality, you’re getting to the foul line, you’re the best foul shooter…sometimes the best shooters, if they haven’t made a shot the best part of the game is what? You tell them to get to the foul line, go see it go in. And then it changes the mindset. So that’s one area that’s more of an individual basis, but right there if you end up going 6-7 times a game with just what he did last year, he could be at 15-16 points per game. You try and figure out how can we score 70-75 points per game and who is going to do it, and that’s been one of the processes that we’ve gone through strategically.

“Defensively, that’s going to be our system, how we’re playing ‘em. But I think for the most part, the biggest concern always is with a new coach, is the buy-in there. From the beginning, I think our staff did a great job of really connecting with the kids, really developing them and getting them to stay. That was our first priority and we were able to do that. But very happy with the guys.”

(What positions did you seek to shore up in recruiting?) “Listen, I am big into everything we do is fit – fit culture. You’ve got to buy into your unselfish action. We’ve got to want to be a part of something bigger than yourself. The University of Washington has so many great athletes – academically, athletically. These guys want to be here, and they want to win. They want to be part of something great. And on top of that, you want guys that fit what you do. We’ve always had systematically long, athletic players that have great IQ – guys that understand with really high intelligence levels in timeouts who can adjust on the fly. Their learnability is quicker. In recruiting, we’ve had some success, and we’re excited about that. We’re excited, One of our tide lines is that we’re always moving forward. If we lose three in a row, we’re always getting better. It is that due process – we are getting better every day. We are always moving forward. That is in every area of our program.”

(How did you convince Noah Dickerson to stay here?) “Listen, at the end of the day, this is who we are and this is how we are going to do it. And our culture is exclusive, it is not inclusive. This is what we can do for you. This is where we envision you. And he bought in. You look at his body, he’s lost a lot of weight. He is a very confident player. You can see it just with what he’s done with his body, it has affected every part of his life in a positive way. There is a guy, how any programs have a guy like that who can score in the low post? And now it is more so the consistency of the domination. He had a run last year where he was averaging 22 (points) and 12 (rebounds). Can you get that consistently? We’ve shown him the way. He’s bought in. But he’s done the work. He’s done the work. That is why we are really, really proud of him.”

(How much do you continue to look at the good and bad of the Huskies in 2016-17?) “Listen, at the end of the day, I told the guys, this season is like an etch a sketch – everything is earned. Whatever happened last year is last year. We are looking forward. We are always moving forward. And so, one of our things, and I keep going back to our culture – “It Doesn’t Matter, Get Better.” It doesn’t matter, get better. I stay away from the past. I focus on the future. And I try and inspire now, and make them believe what they can be. But you can’t do it all alone, you have to do it together. I’ve never been around a great team that had a bunch of individuals. That was the great thing about Carmelo Anthony, everybody said he did not want to win. Well, he won a national championship in high school, he won a national championship in college. He is a winner. And the one thing people didn’t know was that he was all about team. Those experiences of teaching these guys that it is team, we are stronger together, we are tougher together.”

(How do you instill toughness into a team to win close games in the end?) “At the end of the day, you’ve got to make practices harder than they are going to be in games. You’ve got to study situations. You’ve got to keep practicing, keep practicing and moving forward. It is one of those things, you can sit there and talk offensive and defensive strategy. And the end of the day, that relentless effort where you are going at it every day, and you’ve got to fight for you culture. You can’t say one thing, and then not hold them accountable to that. And so, one thing I’ve kind to make very clear to our staff and our players, this is how we are going to play, or you will not play. This is how you are going to be, and I think for the most part, I’ve been proud of the guys in being able to respond to that. We always move forward.”

(What is the breakout of staff responsibilities during practices?) “If anybody has been at practice … we break it into three groups: Will Conroy has the guards, (Dave) Rice has the forwards and (Cam) Dollar has the bigs. We do it in units. They take a large role in the practice part of the implementation of our culture. I look at it like it’s a long rake, and we are just going along the sand – everybody plays a part, and it’s not just me. It is our staff. It is our administrative staff. It is our administrative assistant. It is our director of basketball operations. It is not how you do anything, it’s how you do everything. That is what we are focused on.”

(What has the process been teaching the level of zone defense you want to your coaching staff?) “It is interesting, when Coach Dollar was at Seattle U., he used to call me, and we’d have conversations about the zone (defense). He played it a little bit at Seattle U. The great thing about coaching is that so many coaches learn from each other. I was lucky enough to work for Jim Boeheim who, when we played, everyone had this misconception that all we were just zone. We played a lot of man in our years (at Syracuse). We pressed a lot. The year we went to the Final Four most recently, we played Virginia and were down 16 and pressed them the last 9 minutes. When we beat Gonzaga, down 7 with 21/2 minutes to go, we pressed a lot. We played a lot of pressure defense in the past. But the greatest thing about coaching, I’ve obviously had it in my DNA and knowing a different type of defense than Coach Rice, who when you are a basketball guy and has that much experience to adapt to it, you learn on the fly. Very quickly, they’ve adapted really, really well. Coach Dollar, same thing. Coach Conroy, he was working with the guards yesterday, and it reminded me of me 10 years ago teaching when I first coached the guards. They’ve adapted well. They are studiers. We go out there and we watch and go clips of the past what I’ve felt what our best teams were defensively (at Syracuse). We watch them. We study them. And we practice it every day. Just like they learn from me on that end, I learn a lot from them.”

(David Crisp has never been a full-time point guard at the UW. How comfortable are you with him filling that role?) “The biggest thing is I believe you are who you are. David’s been able to average 12.6 points in one of the best conference in the United States of America. He’s got a jump shot that is as good as anybody. What is a point guard? At Syracuse, we played Michael Gbinije, who is a 3-man, and turned him into a point guard, and he made the NBA. David’s responsibility for us is to lead us, which I think he’s done a really good job. I think he’s the guy who can be the extension of the coaching staff. He’s a guy, with his ability to score, opens up a lot of different opportunities to play basketball, which is simple – point guard or not, if I penetrate and I am good enough to go by you, a guy helps, you make the kick (pass). It is a simple play. The biggest thing … is time and score, and understanding what we want on a day to day basis. That is a process, too, but I think he’s done an incredible job. Another guy who has played great at the point is Michael Carter. He’s been a surprise – not a surprise, but with freshman, depending on if you are a McDonald’s All-American and a top 100 (prospect), it didn’t matter. When you are at Syracuse, Lawrence Moten was the fifth-highest recruit, and became the all-time leading scorer of the history of the Big East, so you never know. But I have been impressed with his ability to set guys up for shots. He’s got great size in the zone, But his game management has been very good. We’ve got good guards. But I think David is going to have a great year for us.”

(Talk about the newcomers) “Jaylen Nowell – I’ve been around this game a long time – he is a guy that, he just knows how to put the ball in the basket. And he can do it against anybody. Like all freshmen, it’s the conditioning. It’s playing and playing hard for 40 minutes. It’s all of those things, but the talent is as good as a scoring guard as I’ve been around. And he’s had a great attitude. Naz Carter is athletic, drives to the basket. He’s an energy – he’s the Energizer Bunny. He’s just constantly bouncing. But he just impacts the game. If it’s offensive glass. If it’s taking the ball to the basket. His upside is on a different planet because of his elite athleticism. He’s a top 1 percent. And the kid lives in the gym. Hamier Wright, I think he’s a guy as the season progresses, he’s 6-9. He’s got a 7-1 wingspan, but he’s got a great IQ for the game defensively and offensively. When you have a guy who can play stretch-4 but also have that size, I think he makes us different. I think as the season progresses, it’s one of the ways where we can just become different where it gives us another advantage. And then obviously Michael Carter, he’s got great size. He really shoots the ball well. And has been a really great surprise for us in the preseason.”

(Why did you say Jaylen Nowell’s re-commitment one of the biggest moments in UW history) “I felt it because, whenever you go through adversity. And I say adversity and we haven’t gone through adversity per se. But you know, you lose a whole class. Those are tough times. And we were able to retain the team. And then when Jaylen decided to renew his commitment I just think it was one of those moments where a local kid, great player, wants his family to see him play. And then he believes in the new staff. It just kind of sent a message. So you look at it recruiting wise and you know what, I believe in what they are doing there. And I believe in staying home and being a representation of not only the community, but the University of Washington. I made a pledge and I’m sticking to it. And then I go back through my experiences. When we went through a little bit of adversity at Syracuse one year, everybody had left. We had guys that were going to commitment and they left. And it was one guy who stayed there. And he was from Rodchester, NY. His name was John Wallace. And a lot of people were trying to get him to go other places and he had the opportunity to and he stuck there. And he’s become a hero. He had some struggle years. Took us to a Final Four and a national championship game against Kentucky in ’96. But you know the great things about college basketball is it’s not just the – it’s not about the NBA. What it’s about is the university and what you represent. It’s having a chance to do something special in your backyard and feeling really proud of that and feeling connected to that. The belief in us in that moment, I felt that way. It was coming from my heart. And I really believed it.”

(How did he tell you?) “It was interesting. He had called and said he was going to come. There were two moments that that happened – three moments. It was Matisse Thybulle and then him and then Noah. And I screamed into Hec Ed. I was screaming. ‘Whyyyyyy, Yes! Go Dawgs! Let’s go baby! [pounds table] But you do! I mean think about. You know when you get, listen, you get that, the local piece is huge here. And you got a local kid. Adversity. New thing. And he’s saying, what? I believe in you guys. I believe in this great university. I believe in representing it. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I came here. There’s certain times in your life and that’s one of them for me. I call them brain tattoos. Something I’ll always remember.”

(What’s your plan?) “Well, we’re learning every day right now. That’s part of the preseason. But regardless of – I’m playing to win. The guys who can help us win in our system are playing. Every game that we play, that’s the entire goal. One day at a time. We go and we play that game. Win or lose. We come back. We learn from it. We get better. That’s the most important thing. It’s the buy-in. It’s the fit. But to go back to who I’m going to play, I’m not going to talk about that now per se. You guys will figure it out in our first games. But I think we got a great corps group of guys that have bought in to what we believe in and our system. There will be growing pains, but the one thing and the message that I want to get out to everybody is grow with us. You got to grow with us. This is a plan. A system. A newness. There’s going to be ups and downs, but I really believe that we’ll be a team that will be together. We’ll be out there fighting for our lives every day. We’ll be organized. We will compete. The biggest thing like I told you guys earlier, the biggest thing that I’m fighting right now is foundational culture. This is who we’re going to be and this is what we’re going to be about and this is how we’re going to play.”

(Biggest concerns heading into the season) “Biggest concern? I don’t have any concerns. Listen, I’m one of those guys do your best and forget the rest. You know what I mean? My management style is inspire people and manage process. And I really believe in the process. The biggest thing that I don’t want – and it’s one of outcomes for our team and I said it earlier – always move forward. That’s the way you grow. When you have a growth mindset, you’re thinking how can I get better everyday. We’re not focusing on the past. We’re focusing on the future. What are our concerns at the beginning of the year when I took over the job it was going to be free throw shooting. That was a big concern. That’s something that we practice everyday. But that’s something you can’t really control, but you can always try to get better at. Can we score enough points in the half court? That’s going to be something that we’re going to have to figure out based on who we play. If that’s the case, then you’ll see more pressure because we might have to create more points off of our defense. And sometimes your best offense is great defense. And so, let’s get it going. I’m excited. I’m really excited. But you know, you guys are a big part of this thing too. And being a part of this and growing with us. The greatest thing about coaching and developing is trying to get these guys is doing what? You see their development. You see what they were as freshmen. You see what they are as sophomores. And you see what they are as juniors. And seeing them buy in. and seeing them getting better incrementally.”

(Have you talked to the Dawg Pack or reached out to UW students?) “No, but if you see me painted purple one day with a big Mohawk somewhere like that. You’re like omigod, that Hopkins guy. He’s kind of crazy. One of the things that makes this job special and I’ve had the opportunity to go to the football games and see the Dawg Pack. It’s the fan base. It’s the alumni. It’s the boosters. It’s the experience when you go to a game. That’s what makes great experiences and great home court advantages. From the study that I’ve done, it’s got one of the greatest fan bases and student bases. And I’m excited if we can create what football has done to get that fan base in that gym. It can be one of the greatest places to play in college basketball and that’s our goal.”