They had it all: A high-scoring, playmaking point guard, an NBA-bound, five-star wing player and another bruising, all-American, low-post power forward.
The University of Washington preseason basketball team was what dreams are made of.
Expectations shot through the roof. Was this the year Husky basketball would defend their conference championship, take that final step and make a deep run into March Madness?
All the ingredients were in place. Throw the two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year on top of all that talent and it seemed to be a no-brainer.
So, what happened? Why does this potential juggernaut of a team have a 12-12 record and a six-game losing streak? How could they possibly lose to their cross-state rivals by 12 points?
Baffling, to say the least.
But if you really dissect this team, the answers are not that hard to find.
Sunday night’s 79-67 loss to Washington State (yeah!) sums up the Husky season in a nutshell; poor defense, sloppy ball-handling, terrible shot selection and a stunning lack of composure.
It just doesn’t make sense.
UW head coach Mike Hopkins is a very good coach. He fine-tuned his craft for 22 years as an assistant under one of the top coaches in the country in Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. He came to Seattle and has done nothing but win—hence the back-to-back COY awards.
He showed he could recruit as well, stunning the nation by landing not one, but two McDonalds’ All-Americans in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels for the 2020 season. And, after sitting out the required year since transferring from Kentucky, Quade Green was the point guard who was going to make the engine run.
Unfortunately for Hopkins, dreams don’t always come true—no matter how hard you work.
After jumping out to a 10-2 start to the season, including an impressive win over current No. 1 Baylor, excitement was at an all-time high around Montlake.
Then reality set in.
It all started to crumble when Green, who had started 14 games at point guard and was averaging 11.4 points and 5.3 assists, was inexplicably ruled academically ineligible and forced to sit out the winter quarter. The team is 1-8 since his suspension and currently dwell in the basement of the Pac-12. Ouch!
How does that happen? Is no one paying attention to these kids when they are not on the court? Yes, most of the responsibility sits with Green, but are there not checks and balances within a program to make sure something like this doesn’t derail your season? Hopkins is the face of the program. He deserves some blame. That just can’t happen.
That announcement seemed to take the wind out of the Huskies’ sails and the spiral began. With no one to get the team into their offense and no one to get the ball down low to Stewart and outside to McDaniels, it all came unraveled.
Not only was Green a good playmaker, he could hit the outside shot as well, which opened the court for the all-Americans to do their thing. It also benefited Naz Carter and his above-the-rim game.
The team knew what they were getting with Stewart and his low-post game. Get him the ball near the basket and he uses his variety of spin moves and power to the tune of 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
McDaniels was the question mark. He can shoot for sure and his enormous wingspan helps on defense, but with Green out, he seems lost. A sprained ankle didn’t help, and his confidence has disappeared. No question he has the talent to take over games, but he tends to play like the college freshman he is, earning seven technical fouls and leading the league in personal fouls.
Isn’t this where the coaching should take over? Shouldn’t Hopkins make it his No. 1 priority to get McDaniels on track since he will only be here for one year? Yes, it’s a team game, but when one of your best players is struggling mightily, it would make sense to do whatever it takes to make him right.
Watching the game Sunday, I could see the confidence seep from the Huskies when it looked like the game was going in the wrong direction, again. Losing streaks do that to a team. Losing one player shouldn’t cause a team to implode like this and finding a capable backup shouldn’t be that hard at this level.
Putting a finger on the exact reason the Huskies are in last place in the Pac-12 is a tough task. As I stated after they lost to Gonzaga earlier in the season, it appears to this untrained eye that the team plays without purpose.
It’s like watching an all-star team. Once inside their half of the court, it’s a free-for-all. It tends to look like a pick-up, streetball game. If Stewart can’t get the ball down low, the ball swings from side to side until someone throws up an ill-advised shot once the shot clock winds down. That’s why a stellar point guard is so invaluable.
On defense, it appears Pac-12 teams have figured out how to beat Hopkins’ famous zone defense. Time and time again on Sunday, quick passing by the Cougars found soft spots in the zone for easy baskets. And when teams are hitting from outside as well, like WSU’s CJ Elleby did for 34 points, the zone defense looks beatable.
There are still seven games to go in the regular season and the Pac-12 tournament follows. So, there is time to right the ship in Montlake and salvage what currently looks like a lost season. No question they have the talent to win the conference tournament, but with the way they are playing right now, it will take a miracle to win another game.
The team will be dismantled before next season since Stewart and McDaniels are most likely high NBA draft picks and will opt out of college basketball to pursue the fame and fortune of pro hoops.
This team had so much potential. Unfortunately, potential only takes you so far. What a shame.