It’s ‘Believin’ Time’ For Washington Huskies Basketball

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What the Hec(Ed) is happening at Alaska Airlines Arena on the campus of the University of Washington? Have you noticed that the men’s basketball team is undefeated at home this season, not far behind that on the road, undefeated in conference play and on a nine-game winning streak?

To be fair, the Pac-12 Conference is down overall this year.  Not a single team is so much as sniffing the A.P. Top 25 Poll, with Washington the closest to a ranked team at the equivalent of number 28.  Also, the Huskies have only played two ranked teams so far this season and lost to them both. Sure, they were in a dogfight with Gonzaga—see what I did there?—but couldn’t quite get it done.

What to make of all of this, and how should fans feel?  You could be forgiven for forgetting about the basketball team for the past few years.  But now that the bandwagon is back on the road, it’s time to review exactly what got us to this point.

Washington was pretty good under previous head coach Lorenzo Romar, who was at the helm from 2002-2017.  In 2004 they won the Pac-12 Tournament. In 2005, they were a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, though they only won two games.  During his tenure, Romar took Washington to the NCAA tournament six times, including two Sweet 16s, most recently in 2011. He coached a staggering 16 future NBA players at Washington, including his final, Markelle Fultz, who was the number one overall pick in the 2017 draft.  

Probably his most successful player—and endearing—is current Denver Nugget Isaiah Thomas, who is a University Place, Wash., Curtis Senior High School product.  In spite of these successes, Romar’s luster faded down the stretch, leaving fans with a bad taste in their mouths and leading to his eventual termination. Nonetheless, Romar resuscitated a program that hadn’t seen the NCAA Tournament in years prior, except perhaps as fans.  He just wasn’t able to take them to that next level of being national contenders.

After Romar’s firing, UW went in an entirely different direction, hiring Syracuse assistant (and interim head coach, briefly) Mike Hopkins as their head coach.  Syracuse, as in, ‘Cuse? Yes, that one. Basketball blue bloods, home to the biggest arena in the country and almost the most wins, perhaps half a tier below your North Carolinas, Dukes, Kansases and Kentuckys.  

Along with his resume, Hopkins brought the signature, 2-3 zone defense with him from Syracuse to Seattle.  The zone is controversial because it just looks so different from what most teams play, which is more of a man-to-man style.  The zone has a way of stifling good teams. Just ask Michigan State, who lost to Syracuse in the Tournament last year. But the zone also mostly hasn’t gotten Syracuse over the hump, their last National Championship coming in 2003.  They made it to the Final Four in 2013, but Michigan, led by Trey Burke, was having none of it, though I digress.

So what has Mike Hopkins done in his first one and a half seasons? He’s put Washington back on the map, at least on the West Coast.  He has a 37-17 record overall, 21-13 his first season and is 16-4 so far in his second. He’s breathed new life into the fanbase. This will affect things like recruiting and ticket and merchandise sales.  When one of only two revenue sports is down, it affects all the other sports, the lifeblood of college athletics. A rising tide lifts all boats. People ought to be thanking Hopkins, not that he should be resting on his laurels.

So where does Washington go from here, and what does the remainder of their season look like? The good news is that they only have to play teams from the Pac-12 for the rest of the regular season.  The bad news? They only get to play teams from the Pac-12 for the remainder of the regular season. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to notch any notable wins before Selection Sunday on March 17th.

In some ways, the best Washington can hope for is to not lose more than a couple of games, which should keep them firmly in the going-to-the-Tournament category, which should be seen as a massive success in its own right, considering it would be their first time going to the dance in eight years.  The Men’s NCAA Tournament—aka March Madness—may be the most exciting, compelling sporting event of the year. Anything is truly possible, or almost anything, just ask Loyola Chicago how their season went last year, until Michigan sent them packing in the National Semifinal of the Final Four.

In summary, if you’re a Washington fan, then it’s what I call believin’ time.  Dust off your dancin’ shoes. Get that jersey pressed. Prepare to eat a lot of chicken wings.  It’s go time.

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Paul Redman

Paul Redman is a writer and chef in Seattle who grew up in the Midwest. His work has appeared in print and online, including San Francisco magazine, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Contrary. He eats too many chicken wings and cracks way too many dad jokes and food puns. Follow him on Twitter @predman.

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