Fifteen months on the job, Hopkins reflects on resurrecting a downtrodden UW basketball program. Husky fans head into Year 2 with the former Syracuse assistant buoyed by his infectious optimism that made him a surprise darling of Montlake last season.
Mike Hopkins’ desk inside his corner office at Alaska Airlines Arena is cluttered with notebooks, folders, a financial self-help book and a program to next week’s star-studded Peach Jam tournament.
Sitting on a corner next to a family photo of a young Hopkins surrounded by his wife and three kids is a Christmas card given to the University of Washington men’s basketball coach by Gregory Thybulle, whose son Matisse is a senior guard for the Huskies.
“One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received,” Hopkins said of the card. “Tears were shed that day.”
In the back of the room, there’s an autographed picture of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown that sits alongside an Isaiah Thomas bobblehead.
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There’s also a framed picture of Theodore Roosevelt that includes the former president’s famous quote about ignoring critics – a gift from a friend on Hopkins’ first day at UW.
Then Hopkins pulls out his most cherished memorabilia – the basketball from his first game with the Huskies last year that was given to him by the team following an 86-82 victory over Belmont.
Every UW player signed the ball, which reads: “1st of Many!”
Fifteen months on the job, Hopkins reflects on resurrecting a downtrodden UW basketball program. Husky fans head into Year 2 with the former Syracuse assistant buoyed by his infectious optimism that made him a surprise darling of Montlake last season.
Hopkins re-energized a dormant fan base that returned to old Hec Edmundson Pavilion in droves to watch a defensively dominant team smother opponents with its 2-3 zone while climbing to the top of the Pac-12 standings, but ultimately falling short of snapping a seven-year NCAA tournament drought.
The Huskies finished 21-13 and 10-8 in conference in the first year with Hopkins after they went 9-22 and 2-16 the previous season.
Since UW’s 85-81 loss at Saint Mary’s in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, Hopkins has had a busy summer.
In June, he purchased Starbucks gift cards from the $15,000 bonus that he received after winning the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award and gave them away to UW fans.
Later that month, Hopkins worked as a college basketball analyst on NBA draft night for Yahoo Sports. He also sold his house and bought a home in Sammamish, a move he said further entrenches him in Seattle and possibly puts an end to rumors that he’ll bolt for a top-tier program following another 20-win season.
“When you first move to a place like this, it’s incredible,” Hopkins said. “And you kind of jump in a little too fast. Actually, we did.
“You learn to where you really want to be, and we found the perfect spot.”
So what do Hopkins and the Huskies have in store for an encore?
For starters, unlike last year when his first priority was persuading UW players not to transfer, Hopkins has a good feel for who’s returning.
Washington brings back five starters, four experienced seniors, three bench players and 95 percent of last season’s scoring.
The stars include senior Noah Dickerson, a first-team All-Pac-12 forward, leading scorer Jaylen Nowell and Thybulle, the conference’s Pac-12 defensive player of the year.
Hopkins expects the five-man freshman class that includes 6-foot-6 wing Jamal Bey, 7-foot center Bryan Penn-Johnson, 6-2 point guard Elijah Hardy, 6-10 forward Nate Roberts and 7-3 walk-on center Riley Sorn to have an immediate impact this season.
“We got – I hate to say it – eight starters,” Hopkins said referring to reserves Dominic Green, Nahziah Carter and Hameir Wright, who each averaged at least 15 minutes last season.
Still, it will be difficult to manage expectations and a veteran group with several players looking to expand their roles. The Huskies will also need to address deficiencies in rebounding, playmaking and perimeter shooting.
Washington faces a challenging schedule highlighted by a road game at potential preseason No. 1 Gonzaga, a tournament in Vancouver, B.C., against Santa Clara and either Minnesota or Texas A&M and a trip to Atlantic City, N.J., to face Virginia Tech.
“It’s tough to get games because (we’re) so far west,” said Hopkins, who said UW needs to find two nonconference opponents to complete its schedule.
The Huskies received a commitment from 6-5 guard RaeQuan Battle, a 2019 prospect at Marysville-Pilchuck. Washington is also engaged in recruiting battles for Federal Way big man Jaden McDaniels, a top-4 target, and Garfield guard PJ Fuller, who is on ESPN’s top 100 list.
UW is also reportedly in the hunt for three other top-20 recruits, including forwards Isaiah Stewart and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and guard Josh Green.
The immediate and long-range future appears bright for Hopkins, who arrived at a time when UW finalized a lucrative shoe/apparel deal with Adidas while discussions have re-emerged about building a basketball-only practice facility.
“We’re one of two schools in our league that don’t have one,” Hopkins said. “So to be able to have that competitive deal, it would be nice.
“But like I said, we’re able to be successful without one. … We got a great recruiting class. We started on the next one and we feel like we can back that up with really good talent. There’s great talent in Seattle that’s budding. The younger kids are moving up. And it’s really an exciting time for the University of Washington basketball.”
Here’s the Q&A with Mike Hopkins:
(How’s your summer going?) “The summer has been great. The new thing was it was still new. Last year, I got the job in April and it wasn’t like OK he just got done with the season. We did the giveback to the fans at Starbucks, recruiting and getting our guys prepared for spring quarter academically. There’s just a lot. A lot of requests to go speak at different places and try to build some momentum with our fan base. Trying to raise a family. Moved into a new house. I’ve already bought and sold in Seattle. I bought and sold and moved again. So foundation-wise, a lot going on. Obviously, moving again and moving into an apartment for probably about two months. And then finding our home. We’re just excited, happy and settled now.”
(That says a lot to buy another house.) “It’s a lot.”
(It sounds as if you’re planting roots.) “Yeah, that’s the most important thing. For a family too, you got to feel roots are planted. It’s kind of like you go in there and you got to turn it. It’s like a Ninja (blender). You ever have a Ninja that you put the breakfast stuff in? You put it in, and you got to get it and you turn it to lock it in. And then press go.”
(I can’t afford the Ninja.) “You got to go Ninja.”
(It’s like a $200 blender.) “No. It’s $99.”
(I saw it at Target. It’s way too much.) “Do you know where you could have got it? You could have got it on Amazon on Prime Day. Ninety-nine bucks.”
(If you don’t mind me asking, what neighborhood did you move to?) “I’m in a place called Bridle Trails right over the 520-bridge. It literally takes me 15 minutes to get here. There you get a little more yard for the kids, big yard and go out and throw the football. Jump on the trampoline. It’s pretty cool.”
(I remember your first summer and you guys were out house-hunting all the time. How long did it take you guys to find this place, months or weeks?) “My wife was looking and I said only if you can see yourself and us living here then don’t take me to any other house. Just make sure what’s good and we’re going to go. Just going through the process. I think when you first move to a place like this it’s incredible. And you kind of jump in a little too fast. Actually, we did. And so, gosh I saw Wallingford for the first time. I’m like omigosh, this is incredible. Certain areas in Bellevue. Or in the city. You learn to where you really want to be and we found the perfect spot.”
(You mentioned more speaking engagements. Are you more in demand than last year?) “I don’t know in demand, I just think it’s more every situation and opportunity we have I’m still new. I love to meet everybody and meet more people. And those are great opportunities to connect with the city. I really believe that the key to anything great is about the people and they’ve got to feel supported, buy in and feel apart of it and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
(Have you found some favorite spots around the city?) “Oh my God. I have. We found Portage Bay right on Roosevelt. It’s my vice. It’s where I go. It’s like my Cheers. I go there and they’re like, ‘Hey Coach, how are you?’ I go, ‘I’ll take the eggs benedict.’ My son everyday is like ‘Dad can we go to Portage Bay?’ There’s just so many really cool places. I like meeting new people and being in different environments. But yeah, I got a couple of spots that I like to go to.”
(How are you different and how is this whole experience different for you compared to last year?) “The difference is last year there was still the unknown. I believe the kids were really grinding, working and coming together, but you still hadn’t seen them in a practice situation other than drills. Now it’s kind of like, you got some numbers. You got feedback. You got film. You got different things that you can look at and we’ve got a veteran team. At least we know we’ll be more advanced early on in the season. (Last year) we didn’t know when the defense would click. When they would believe in it? Or when would they buy into it? So there was that process. I feel like the kids have bought into the defense. They know it, not only the basics, but they’ve been able to scout out of it and be able to make adaptations and that’s what makes it really good. They know how we’re going to be offensively. What I like and what we’re trying to do so we’ll be more advanced there. You still got to make shots. … But they know what we expect and that’s part of building a culture and a program. That’s a day-to-day struggle. Being the head coach now, you have a plan, but nothing ever runs smoothly. You’re kind of making decisions and keeping people on track. Last year when I got the job it was really I had to figure out who wanted to be here. So we were training them hard right from the get go. This last year and the spring quarter we really focused hard academically to get back on track and give them a little bit of freedom. They still lifted. They still got some shots, but it wasn’t necessarily as hard as we did before because the season is long. You want kids coming in refreshed mentally and ready. Ripe and ready to go. That’s been the biggest difference.”
(I imagine you no longer need to make a first impression with the players.) “Yeah, but it’s still so much of this stuff is timing is so important and making sure that you’re peaking at the right time when you have to be really good. The quarter system is still one of those things that I’ve been learning. I’ve been doing the semester thing a long time and I’ve already had the schedule in my head. I like to do something. If I think there needs to be a change, I’m going to make a change based on a gut feeling. But it was a learning curve. But it’s been exciting. It was a great year. You saw what the place could potentially be from the feeling of the fans and what that home-court advantage could be like. And be special. You just want to keep building it. Keeping pushing these guys beyond their limits. And keep raising the standard. We have a high standard. And keep getting better at that. We got a good team. I was talking to Matisse (Thybulle) earlier, you have young guys like Naz (Carter), Hamier (Wright) and Jaylen (Nowell) are a year older. We have all of those seniors and then you have the freshmen. Our core group and depth is going to be a lot stronger, which is good.”
(Before we talk about the upcoming season, what were the biggest takeaways from last season?) “It’s hard to win. You realize that it is a fine line. I always knew it was a fine line, but it’s a fine line. It’s a simple as limiting turnovers. Making foul shots when they matter. There’s so many different things, but it’s hard. Teams are really, really good. You got to respect the game. You got to believe – everybody used the word process. You just hope that your process is better than the opponent’s process. Personally, for me it was more managing the balance of such a long (season). There’s just different stresses. I felt like I did a good job with that, but you can always get better. I think that was the biggest lesson, creating the personal balance. Then as a team, you just got to try to get better everyday. It’s an emotional roller coaster and they’re kids. You’re just trying to help them grow. Be better individuals. Better academically. Better people. I think that really translates and those guys did a really good job.”
(Do you and your staff do an offseason review and if so, what does that look like?) “I like to go through it and we do a performance evaluation as a staff. Basketball-wise, we were one of the worst teams in our league in assists. I don’t want to say we played selfish, we just got to get better at finding the open man and making the extra pass. That’s one of our mottos and part of our culture playbook. When you start doing that and trusting each other, you’re going to shoot better. You’re going to be more unselfish and you’re going to get better shots. That’s an area that we got to get better. I felt defensively, we had the No. 1 defense per KenPom in our league during league. But we didn’t rebound the ball well. I think we were 11th or 12th in our league in defensive rebounding. Now we were smaller, but those were a couple of areas that we can get better at where we got hit in certain games. Basketball and building a program-wise, you got to keep fighting for your culture every day. When you try to change behavior, it’s not an easy thing. It takes time. It’s not a snap of the finger. It’s over time. I felt we did a good job of fighting for that every day. I felt like it did get better, but we still have a long way to go. I was trying to tell my son the other day the things that become great take time. It’s not quick. And everything is different. You don’t know when it’s going to click. And all of sudden it clicked against Kansas. You’re a coach and you’re just trying to do your best job everyday of getting them to understand why we do this. If we take this away this can happen. And if we’re patient and show poise, this is what’s going to happen. The better we execute, the better chance we’ll have to win. But it’s one of things that you’re waiting for it to happen. It’s something that we’ll fight for everyday.”
(You took a team that was 9-22 and went 21-13. So this year, what are we looking at in terms of expectations?) “It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype. And it’s so easy to get caught in media/Twitter and all of these different things. The only thing that matters is do you get better everyday. That’s the hardest thing, especially with the way the information that these kids can get in today’s day and age. I always say stay hungry, humble and wise. You should have those expectations yourself. We came here and it wasn’t to get to the NCAA tournament, it was to win a national championship. To do that you have to have high standards. You have to have great teamwork and camarderie. You have to build a family. You have to have a great fan base. That’s what we try to build every day. That’s what we talked about earlier, you never know when it’s going to happen but that’s what you’re striving to do everyday that you come to work. So expectations? That’s what great programs have. And we want to be a great program. So bring it.”
(Last year, I think you guys were picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12. I’m guessing you’ll be among the top three in the preseason picks this year. So do you have to manage expectations?) “You can’t worry about that to be a good team. I think you have to be consistent. I thought last year we had some great wins, but we just weren’t consistent as we needed to be. We lost to a couple of really good teams early. Being established and knowing what we’re doing will help us in early games. But you can only focus on the things that you can control and that’s how hard you play, how smart you play and how together you play. So that’s what we’ll be focusing on. But we want to be a great program. Expectations? Yeah, it’s different. It’s going from the hunter to the hunted, but we haven’t really done anything. We won games and people now know who we are and that’s great. We want them to know who we are, but we also have to go out there and earn it and prove it. You can’t just go to the NCAA tournament because somebody rated you high. We have to get a lot better. We won a lot games that were close, narrow margins. Where do we improve? We improve on the passing. That’s where we can improve. We can improve in rebounding the ball. Those will give us more probability to win certain games. And our player-development piece is important and guys getting better. Sammy Timmins has had a great summer so far and Matisse. David has had an injury that has kind of hampered him a little bit in his work. For the most part, we’ve got a long way to go. I love the feeling of the city and the belief, but it’s not easy. You got to go out and prove it and earn it.”
(Let’s talk a bit about your newcomers.) “Overall, we haven’t done really any team stuff. We’re trying to show them this is how we operate. They did an excellent LEAP program. Really focused on time-management and work because it’s a pretty rigorous schedule. Four of our freshmen won an award for student-athlete of the week, which was exciting. All of the guys fit needs.”
(Who do you want to start with?) “Elijah Hardy is a pass-first point guard. He’s got great vision on the court and makes others around him better. Obviously, played for a great high school program. Then you have Bryan Penn-Johnson, BPJ is what we call him. He’s 7-foot and has a 7-7 wingspan. You look at our zone and those (players) become rim-protectors and game-changers, especially with the way we play. I’m really excited about him. Jamal Bey is a 6-7 wing who I believe – they rated him in the ESPN top 100 – but I thought he was one of the most underrated players in the country. He can pass, dribble and shoot. Great high-school program. Winner. Gatorade state player of the year. Then Nate Roberts is 6-10. He can run and jump. Has a 7-2 wingspan. A guy who has gained 25 pounds since high school. His kept saying the guy keeps getting better and better. Has an incredible work ethic and an incredible motor. And then Riley Sorn. Riley is just an incredible kid and he’s got good size. We got good kids. We filled our need. We were looking for a guy who could be a great point guard, which we feel Elijah can. You’re losing the four seniors and a guy like Jamal Bey is really talented. And I felt like we had to get bigger. And 7-3, 7-1 and 7-7 wingspan and 6-10 with a 7-2 wing span secured that. I thought a lot of our needs were met. But we’re just now putting them into our culture and getting them to understand how we operate day to day is what our goal is. So far, so good.”
(Is Riley on scholarship or will he walk-on?) “He’s going to be for sure three years of scholarship and two years pay in-state. He’s (majoring) in aerospace engineering. That’s why he wanted to come to the UW. He’s unbelievable. He’s so smart and he’s just an incredible kid. Hopefully we’re in a situation where we can … in a perfect world if we had a scholarship to give, he would be a guy that would get it. Meaning four years. But the education part was so important for him to be here.”
(He’s a kid that comes from a smaller school and I haven’t seen too much on him.) “In reality, he’s a scholarship player. It’s one of those things when you’re lucky when you have an opportunity and sometimes your numbers don’t and you lose a player because of scholarship situations. In this case, we gained a major player.”
(You touched on your player development. Let’s talk about your returners. You’re the only Pac-12 team returning its starting five and four seniors with a ton of experience.) “Yeah, a lot of experience. Literally last year they were freshmen because they were new to our system. Now we’re really excited. It will be interesting how we coach and show them what we want. There’s so many areas to get better. These guys played a lot of minutes. They played 36-38 minutes. We didn’t go really deep down the bench – maybe 8. And so, we can go a little bit deeper this year. And some guys might instead of 38 play 31 or 32. Our depth is better.”
(Is that something y0u want to happen.) “It all has to play out, but it goes back to we expected a lot from these guys. You’re in great shape and the next thing you know, 38 minutes is 38 minutes. And if you play at a high level, that’s a helluva thing.”
(It would seem as if you’d want to curb minutes for someone like David Crisp who essentially played without a backup last season and tallied some heavy minutes.) “He played heavy. And he’s been battling with his lower back. So he’s got some issues there, but he’s almost 10o percent. But he’s guy that was the catalyst for what we were doing last year. We were trying to push our culture and how we wanted to play and he was the guy that was really moving it in the locker room and holding the team accountable and sacrificing a lot of his game for the betterment of the team. When we talk about that we part, that’s a huge part of what we’re doing. I think David can take it to a whole ‘nother level. I don’t feel like he had his best year. when you look at his percentages. I think David is a really good shooter, especially if he gets the right ones. This year with our experience, I’m sure he’ll get the right ones. We wouldn’t have had the success we had without his leadership and his play and I think his play can even be better.”
(How about Noah Dickerson?) “Noah was obviously first-team All-Pac-12. Had great moments. The biggest thing hopefully being older is the consistency. You can’t go out and get 25 (point) and 10 (rebounds) against DeAndre Ayton and Arizona and then struggle in other games. But that’s college kids. But he is as good a big man/in-the-paint player as I’ve seen in the country in a long, long time. He can flat out score. He improved his foul shooting last year. He’s in great shape. We expect a lot of him. When he’s right, we’re a tough team to beat.”
(Do you think offensively his game will move to the perimeter?) “He wants to. My thing is show me you can do it in practice. This isn’t a science experiment. He’s improved it. He’s improved his foul shooting. This goes back to there’s no one bigger than the program. You do what it takes to win. Work on those areas in your game and if you get really good at it and you prove to us in practice that you can make, then guess what I’ll let you shoot it. But it’s got to be earned. It’s not, hey, go take a couple. But he’s as elite as you’re going to get.”
(Matisse Thybulle) “I thought Matisse changed our season defensively. Not only did it change schematically with how teams would attack us, but his play kind of built the rest of the confidence in the team. He was the backbone to it and did a heckuva job. I felt like earlier in the season he didn’t shoot the ball like he can shoot it. He’s a guy who averages about 11 (shots) a game and I would think it should be around 15. Last year we still didn’t get him to the foul line as much as we should because he’s such a good foul shooter. He’s so athletic. That’s areas where maybe I have to be a better coach. Maybe run a couple of more set plays for him and try to free him up. But I think he’s a first-team All-Pac-12 player and talent. Just really excited for him this year.”
(Dominic Green) “The other day I was a little bit upset. He’s got an incredible work ethic and he started shooting incredibly off the move and he’s such a weapon. I said to him gosh you remind me of Reggie Miller. He had like a down look on his face. Reggie Miller! Disrespectful. That’s like a cardinal sin. One of the greatest competitors and shooters that you’ll ever see or play the game. I told him go do your work. Go get online. So he did and he came back and was like, yeah, that was not disrespectful and he’s pretty good. But he’s a weapon. You look at the jump he made from his sophomore to junior year in shooting the ball. He went back to being consistent. He’s as good as a shooter as I’ve seen and a difference-maker when he’s on the court.”
(You mentioned Sam earlier.) “Big Sam. The thing with him is his confidence. He was probably one of the most improved players in the country earlier in the year. He made huge strides and jumps and at the end of the year he lost a little bit of confidence, but still we wouldn’t have had the year we had without a good Sam Timmins. And for most of the time he was terrific. He’s worked hard in the offseason. His movement is better. When he’s moving and flying with his size, that’s his gift. He’s a guy that can really move for a guy that size.”
(Let’s move on to last year’s freshmen starting with Jaylen. Are you a little surprised he returned to school and didn’t declare for the NBA draft?) “At the end of the day it goes back to winning. I think he stayed here to be a part of building a legacy. You want guys that want to be pros, but you want guys that also want to do something special and great. I think that’s why. There was talk about (entering the draft), but I think Jaylen wants to do something special in his hometown. I think that’s one of the things that make him special – giving this community something to be proud of.”
(I saw Naz somewhere and he looks like a young man who has taken advantage of the weight room. That kid has really filled out.) “We got a great strength and conditioning coach so you’ve seen a lot of change in Naz. He’s changed his body. I think he’ll have a huge year. You look at guys like Donte DiVincenzo what he did at Villanova. We got – I hate to say it – eight starters. Like you can start Dom Green. You can start Naz Carter. You can start Hamier Wright. That’s a luxury. But (Carter) has really improved his game and look out for a big year.”
(You just mentioned him, Hamier Wright.) “He was a little bit turnover prone, both him and Naz. I think the year of experience and understanding will help. The game is simple and played in a simple way. Be able to hit open shots and play defensively. I thought Hamier had some really good moments. As you get older, you become more consistent. But look, he’s 6-9. He can really shoot the ball. You talk about positionless basketball and he defines that. He’s really improved his shot.”
(How is your schedule looking? Are you done?) “No. We still have a couple of more to get done. Obviously, we got Minnesota or Texas A&M up in (Vancouver Showcase after opening against Santa Clara). [UW also plays Virginia Tech in Atlanta City, N.J. and at Gonzaga.] Gonzaga is going to be No. 1 preseason out of the polls. You got Virginia Tech top 15 and some have them in the top 10. It looks like one of Buzz Williams’s best teams and we know what they did to us last year. Minnesota had a down year last year, but they ‘re going to be back. They’re a dangerous team. Texas A&M has been in the tournament the last few years and they’re a pretty darn good program.”
(Do you like the schedule?) “I like it, but what you realize is there’s always the learning part for me is it’s tough to get games because you’re so far West. And the NCAA has shifted how they look at actual road games and those types of things. So trying to position yourself for the tournament. I feel like we’re playing a strong schedule. We got good teams coming in here like we did last year, but still looking for two more.”
(What’s your thoughts on the apparel/shoe deal with Adidas?) “Just excited. I’m always excited for the future and growth. One of our mottos is Always Moving Forward. We got a leader (Athletic Director Jen Cohen) who is incredible and is forward-thinking on how to make this place the best place. That kind of growth gives us a lot of resources to make things happen. We got a great partner to hopefully build championship programs across the board. That’s what we’re here to do and hopefully we can do it.”
(Do you think UW will ever build a basketball-only practice facility?) “Boy, I don’t know. I just know that’s part of the plan hopefully. We’re going to be able to do our thing without it, but if it happens great. I think we’re one of two schools in our league that don’t have one. So to be able to have that competitive deal, it would be nice. But at the end of the day, we’ve got nice facilities. Always moving forward and trying to build and build and be bigger and better.”
(There’s been talk for year about a basketball-only facility. Is there any real traction there now?) “It’s definitely being talked about, but there’s so many different variables from where, to when, to how much? This place is a little bit different in terms of the grand scheme of things and how things work. The numbers are big. But it’s Seattle, baby. But it’s also exciting. The thing that makes this place special is the people. Obviously, it would be nice to have a facility. But like I said, we’re able to be successful without one. We’ll do our best to do that. We got a great recruiting class. We started on the next one and we feel like we can back that up with really good talent. There’s great talent in Seattle that’s budding. The younger kids are moving up. And it’s really an exciting time for University of Washington basketball.”