The Huskies were last in the Pac-12 while shooting 30.5 percent on three-pointers. Now they're third in the conference at 38.4, which is a big reason why UW is on the verge of a Pac-12 title.
Something happened to the Huskies during their 11-day holiday break, which explains why they’re on the brink of a Pac-12 regular-season title.
At the time, Washington was a middle-of-the-road basketball team with a 7-4 record and an imposing defense that was undercut by an inconsistent offense that couldn’t shoot straight.
Following a dismal 3-for-19 three-point performance during a 57-41 victory against Sacramento State on Dec. 21, Mike Hopkins had seen enough.
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The UW coach met with his staff and the team and hatched a plan to fix the shooting woes before returning to the court for the Jan. 1 nonconference finale.
“As a team, we sat down and talked about what we thought was holding us back,” senior guard Matisse Thybulle said. “We altered practice schedules and the practice layout.”
Hopkins shortened practice and mandated that each player participate in one of three 40-minute daily shooting sessions with an UW assistant.
“It allowed our coaching staff to get more time with these guys in a more intimate situation – one-on-one – and the connection was better,” Hopkins said. “More shots. Then it was more of the right shots. Then it was making 380 shots in 40 minutes and creating better habits and working harder.
“That’s what you do when you’re not great at something. You create a plan. You work at it and you try to execute it. These guys really did it. They bought into it.”
The change in practice habits created immediate results.
After 13 nonconference games, Washington was shooting 30.5 percent on three-pointers, which ranked 311th among the 351 Division I teams and last in the Pac-12.
Over the past 13 games, UW is shooting 38.4 percent behind the arc, which ranks third in the conference and 173rd nationally.
In Pac-12 games, the Huskies are averaging an additional two three-pointers, which is one of the biggest reasons why they’re running away with the regular-season title race.
Washington (21-5, 12-1 Pac-12), which plays host to Colorado (16-10, 7-7) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Alaska Airlines Arena, needs a victory to capture its first conference championship since 2012.
Looking back, Hopkins playfully calls himself “The Grinch who stole Christmas” while explaining he required players to put in extra work during their holiday break.
“The demands are just so tough for these kids,” Hopkins said. “Winter break was the perfect opportunity to find extra time and get that work in to kind of re-establish and raise the standard.
“We got the ideas and now it goes back to how can we implement them with their schedules.”
A cynic might look at UW’s three-point shooting transformation with a fair amount of skepticism.
There’s not a basketball team on the planet that doesn’t practice shooting. So what makes the Huskies so special?
“We became a shooting school,” assistant coach Will Conroy said. “They go to class. They get their academics. And every day we’re taking shots. Game shots. Shots that you’d get in a game and just building the technique.
“Now when you get the shot in the game, there’s no second-guessing because it’s the shot that you shoot every single day. We tailor each workout to each player.”
Throughout the day, UW assistants Cameron Dollar, David Rice and Conroy are running players through a series of shooting drills.
“We had a couple of people come and watch us and they say ‘Y’all do this every day?’” Conroy said. “Every day we’re out here. I’m on my feet from 12-6.
“I’m loving it. My body isn’t loving it, but I’m loving it.”
Hopkins loves it too.
“The real reason why I love coaching is the grind, the sweat, the bump, the hit, the talk and the intimate relationship with the players,” said the second-year UW coach, who spent the previous 22 years as a Syracuse assistant where he built a reputation as a player development guru.
It’s not uncommon for a player or two to improve their shooting during the season.
However, it’s extremely rare when every player on the team sees a rise in their three-point shooting percentage.
Most notably, David Crisp and Jaylen Nowell have made the biggest gains.
Crisp was shooting 29.3 percent on three-pointers during nonconference games and he’s up to 42.4 percent in Pac-12 games.
And Nowell, who shot a respectable 38.6 percent behind the arc before Pac-12 play, leads the conference with 50.0 percent three-point shooting in league games.
“Most guys can’t shoot 50 percent alone in an empty gym and he’s doing it in some big games,” ESPN analyst Bill Walton said. “Nowell was always a good shooter so it’s not that surprising what he’s doing. … But Crisp is the one where you say, he’s doing something that’s really incredible.
“And not just him, the entire team has turned it around.”
Then and now
After 13 nonconference games, Washington was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation and ranked 311 among 351 Division I teams. But the Huskies reversed course and after 13 Pac-12 games, they’re one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the conference. Here’s a look.
Name,3pt % (nonconference),3pt % (Pac-12)