Coach Mike Hopkins enters his first Pac-12 home game with Washington (who faces Cal on Thursday night) with his team 12-4 overall.
Back from his first game in Pullman, Mike Hopkins is preparing for his first Pac-12 home opener Thursday against California, which is also breaking in a new coach.
Hopkins, who has guided the Washington men’s basketball team (12-4, 2-1 in Pac-12) to a surprisingly fast start, has fared better than the Pac-12’s other first-year coach, Wyking Jones, who is 7-9 and 1-2 with the Golden Bears.
“I’m sure Wyking is growing just like I am,” Hopkins said when asked about the disadvantages of being a new coach in the Pac-12. “You’re learning a lot. He’s got a great staff. It’s just basketball.”
California @ UW, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
Yes, for the most part the game is the same no matter if you’re in the Pac-12 or the Big East or ACC, where Hopkins spent his coaching career as a Syracuse assistant.
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But midway through his first Pac-12 season, there’s still so much Hopkins is getting used to in his new surroundings.
For starters, he’s adjusting to UW’s conference scheduling format, with games on Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s much more rigid than the ACC’s schedule that includes games on five days of the week.
“I love how the Pac-12 does it,” Hopkins said. “I really do. Now it does matter I, think — and I won’t get into why — but I think there’s some advantages compared to who you play first, to who you play second.”
Since the Pac-12 expanded in 2011-12, the UW-Washington State region has been the easiest road trip — allowing a league-high 11 sweeps.
Five out of a possible eight teams handed the Huskies and Cougars home losses last season. The last time California visited the Evergreen State in 2016, the Golden Bears captured a pair of wins, including a 78-75 victory in Seattle.
But that’s ancient history for the Huskies, who have been one of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 ahead of Thursday’s 8 p.m. game at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Despite returning three starters, comparisons between this UW team and last season’s squad that finished 9-22 and 2-16 in the Pac-12 are beginning to fade.
The Huskies had difficulty winning close games in the recent past, but this season they’re 5-0 in games decided by five points or fewer.
“A big word that we’ve been focusing on with the team has been poise,” junior guard Matisse Thybulle said. “Just to maintain our poise down the stretch and hit free throws and get key stops was really the biggest thing for us.”
Washington has forged a defensive identity with the 2-3 zone Hopkins brought with him from Syracuse. In Pac-12 play, the Huskies rank first in the conference in three-point field-goal defensive percentage (24.6).
“We know no threes,” Thybulle said. “That’s our mindset, no three-pointers.”
Conversely, the Huskies have been woeful behind the arc recently. In the past two games, UW is 4 of 39 on three-pointers.
“Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t,” Hopkins said. “I think the biggest thing is, we don’t focus on it.”
During a 74-53 loss at UCLA, the Huskies converted just 2 of 12 three-pointers in the first half and missed all 15 attempts from downtown in the second. In their next outing — a 70-65 win at WSU last Saturday — UW once again was miserable from the perimeter, making 2 of 12.
However, the Huskies attempted just one three-pointer while shooting 73.9 percent in the second half against the Cougars.
“If it’s not falling you’ve got to take it to the basket, simple one-on-one,” Hopkins said. “That’s a lot of fun as a coach, to make those adjustments, and attempting only one three-pointer in the second half was a growth deal.”