The Washington Huskies men’s basketball program returned this year to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. It created quite a buzz in a town starved for Pac-12 college basketball success, and it completed an epic turnaround for a team that won just nine games in 2016-17 in Lorenzo Romar’s last season as head coach.
A lot of the praise needs to land in the lap of second-year head coach Mike Hopkins. After 22 years as Jim Boeheim’s assistant at Syracuse, Hopkins got his shot to run a program, and the results have been nothing but spectacular. He has been able to stabilize a team left adrift by Romar’s hands-off coaching style. Romar was/is a fantastic recruiter and was able to land players the likes of which UW had never seen (see Markelle Fultz). But he was more apt to let his team ‘just play’ with negligible play-calling and zero on-court discipline. It was a run-and-gun show that couldn’t consistently compete in the Pac-12.
In comes Hopkins and his 2-3 zone defense and complete control of all aspects of his team. He was able to convince four of his better players to stick around instead of transferring, and it paid off. To get this team to win the Pac-12 regular season championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament was quite a feat, and his second Pac-12 Coach of the Year award shows everyone was paying attention.
However, the two games the team played in the 2019 tournament encapsulated the team’s season in a nutshell. They were two games vastly different in style, composure and results, and that summarizes the team’s 2018-19 season. I think it’s called a roller-coaster.
In their first-round game against Utah State, it was the best of the best for UW. Everything came together and they played like no other game all season. There was attacking basketball, smothering defense and skillful ball handling for an entire game. Just as they wrote it up. Big man Noah Dickerson was a man possessed. He was rebounding and pounding the basket during his 38 minutes. He only showed glimpses of his immense talent this season, and if he played like he did for the entire Utah State game (20 pts, 12 rebounds), he’d be an All-American, or close to it.
Jaylen Nowell contributed 19 points and five rebounds, but his five assists tell his story. He was able to drive the basket and draw the Aggies’ attention which only set up easy baskets for Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle (10 pts) and guard David Crisp (8 pts). Nowell showed why he deserved the league’s Player of the Year nod.
But as good as that game made the Huskies look, their second-round game against No. 1 seed North Carolina revealed the growing pains of the program. Granted, the Tar Heels are at a different level in terms of talent and history, but I feel this is a game the Huskies shouldn’t have lost by 22 points. If they played on Thursday like they did on Sunday, this game could have been a whole lot different.
Against Carolina they missed wide open shots time and time again. The hustle and fight just didn’t seem to be there. Good teams bring the effort every game, but it was missing on Sunday. There is little excuse for getting outrebounded 48-24. It is easy to blame nerves, or the team being star-struck by the Tar Heels, but the Huskies had a lot of talent as well. It would have been nice to see what the best of the Huskies could have given Carolina.
The future of Husky basketball is bright, and things seem to be falling into place in Montlake. Hopkins is not going anywhere (newly signed through 2025), so the stability of the program will only continue to improve. They have a five-star recruit coming in next year in Isaiah Stewart to fill some of the scoring that will leave through graduation. If Jaylen Nowell decides to come back and Hopkins somehow pulls another rabbit out of his hat and lands 6-11 Jaden McDaniels out of Federal Way High School (another five-star player), look out.
Looking ahead is great, but this year it would have been nice if the Huskies could have put together back-to-back consistent tournament games. Maybe then we could really see how far this team could have gone. Too bad.