Mike Hopkins inherited a mess. The talent was lean, expectations low and energy level nonexistent. But Hopkins went to work as a first-time head coach and impressed everybody. He beat Kansas and Arizona. He won 21 games. He made each of his players noticeably better. He received Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.
Which has everyone in Seattle wondering: What can Hopkins do for an encore?
Plenty, it appears. Washington returns all five starters, including two entering their fourth season in the lineup. The Huskies welcome an impressive recruiting class, one that includes two athletic big men — a rarity for the program.
Washington’s momentum continues. “We’re trying to build a national championship-quality program,” Hopkins says.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Hopkins
2017-18 RECORD (PAC-12): 21-13 (10-8)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Saint Mary's 85-81 in the second round
KEY LOSSES: None
The best offseason news for the Huskies was 6'8" post player Noah Dickerson’s decision to pull out of the NBA Draft and return for a final season. A close second was 7'0" recruit Bryan Penn-Johnson signing a letter of intent in the spring. One’s a returning All-Pac-12 player and 15.5-point scorer, the other a spindly four-star recruit who can run the floor.
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Together, they could create a lot of problems for the rest of the conference and beyond.
Washington also will count on 6'11" junior Sam Timmins, a two-year starter who provides a physical presence but doesn’t score much; 6'11" recruit Nate Roberts, an active player who supplies a potent mid-range jumper; and 6'6" freshman Jamal Bey, a top-100 recruit who runs the floor well. With the addition of Roberts, Penn-Johnson and Bey, Timmins might have trouble retaining his starting job.
Hopkins also welcomes back senior Dominic Green, a 3-point shooting specialist who beat Arizona with a buzzer-beating trey, as well as his first two Washington recruits, Hameir Wright and Nahziah Carter, who both cracked the rotation as freshmen. The Huskies haven’t had this much front-line firepower in a long time.
The Huskies, as usual, are well-stocked on the perimeter. The group is led by senior Matisse Thybulle, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, a 99-game starter and an 11.2 points per game scorer; sophomore Jaylen Nowell, who led the team in scoring during his first year, averaging 16 per game; and senior David Crisp, an 11.6-point scorer and a two-year starter.
Hopkins took a fundamentally poor defensive team, put it in a zone and let everything evolve around Thybulle, who stole the ball 101 times last season — a school record and second all-time in Pac-12 annals — and blocked 49 shots. For the season Washington’s opponents shot .447 from the field (down from .466 in ’16-17) and averaged 73.0 points per game (down from 81.1).
If there was a noticeable drawback, Hopkins didn’t have a true point guard, urging the shot-minded Crisp to assume a playmaking role, a workable but not perfect situation. He’s hoping incoming freshman Elijah Hardy will help shore up this area.
Hopkins did a masterful job of getting guys like Dickerson, Thybulle, Crisp and Green — the remnants of a 2015 top-10 recruiting class that also featured current NBA players Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray — to buy into his approach and play to their potential. The next step: reaching the NCAA Tournament, something the program has failed to do since 2011. Hopkins will mix a veteran core with his two recruiting classes. He has plenty of offense and size.
Everything was a pleasant surprise last year. Anything short of another 20-win season, a conference finish in the top three or four and a long-overdue trip to the NCAAs will be a disappointment.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
Pac-12 Prediction: 2nd