Photo courtesy of University of Washington Athletics.
By David Cordova.
Starting over is never an easy thing, but it is in fact one of those things that happens to many in the game of life. Sometimes, you have to leave the things that you were once accustomed to and do something different.
That’s what’s happening to University of Washington head coach Mike Hopkins. He started out as a player at Syracuse University from 1989 to 1993, in which averaged 5.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game and also helped them win the 1992 Big East Championship by hitting clutch free throws against UConn.
After a stint playing in the CBA, Hopkins came back to Syracuse as an assistant coach in 1995 and would stay there for the next 22 years. In his tenure there, the Orangemen made sixteen NCAA Tournament appearances, which included four trips to the NCAA Final Four and a national championship in 2003.
But on March 19th, 2017, Hopkins made a major career move as he became the 19th head coach in the history of the University of Washington Huskies. He took over a program that was recently coached by Lorenzo Romar, which had just finished coming off of a disastrous 9-22 season. The only bright light of that season was the emergence of Markelle Fultz, who averaged 23.2 points and ended up being selected as the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Now that the Hopkins regime is now in session, it is time for new things to be implemented. This season started off on a positive note for the Huskies, as they won their first two games of the season against Belmont and Eastern Washington, respectively.
This weekend at the Legends Classic at Madison Square Garden, the new squad faced two very tough tests that will make the team stronger. On Thursday night in the semifinals, they played against Providnce, and challenged them in the second half after being down by seven at the half, but they would not come out victorious as the Friars came out with the victory, 77-70.
“We started off the game and we turned it over 15 times in the first half,” says Hopkins, “Sometimes, the excitement of playing in the Garden, somewhat, pretty big environment, big stage. I think once the guys calmed down in the second half, I think we did a good job, we moved the ball well, we had chances in the game, and we really didn’t play our best game.”
But Coach Hopkins also had some good thoughts on the team, “We talk to the guys, regardless of whether we win or lose, it’s how can we get better from it, and there was a lot of pluses. I don’t like to lose, but I think there’s a lot of areas where we grew as a team. That’s why you play in these preseason tournaments, you get better, you play in an environment like this against really top competition, and our guys fought. They kept fighting and kept coming back, and I’m really proud of our guys.”
But just twenty-four hours later, they came back to the Garden to play Virginia Tech, an outcome which would not be in their favor. The Huskies were held to 26.8% shooting from the field in the first half and trailed by a large margin at halftime, 59-28. After that, they would never recover, as they would lose to the Hokies, 103-79.
Coach Hopkins’ thoughts on the performance? “We weren’t as active as we needed to be and they got to the corners. They shot the ball well, we knew they would shoot from the corners. We were a little bit late. They [Virginia Tech] executed exceptionally well.”
When asked if he was surprised by the Huskies’ defensive performance, he replied, “No. It goes back to the same thing: they do a great job when they get the ball in the high-post of moving their guys and they really sprint. We were late on coverages with and those guys, you got to try and force them off the line and we didn’t have that same pop, that same energy closing out the shooters, especially at the beginning of the game.”
So far, the players that have stood out at Washington happen to be junior Noah Dickerson at the power forward position (18.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game), junior point guard David Crisp (13 points per game), junior guard Matisse Thybulle (12.7 points) and also a significant freshman in guard Jaylen Nowell, who is the leading scorer with 18.7 points per game.
When asked about Nowell, Coach Hopkins replied, “He’s one of those players that’s – he’s an elite scorer. He’s a winner. The thing I take away from this game is that were down about nine points with 4:53 left and they just kept fighting – all of these guys. And Jaylen is one of those leaders. He wants to attack, he wants to win. He wants to get those highs. We’ve had some great guards at Syracuse for years, Washington has had some great guards in its history and he’s one of them. He’s one of the great ones. He just has an ability to score. He loves playing in the big moment and he can make the big shot.”
Another freshman that plans to make an impact is forward Nahziah Carter (3.3 points per game). In Friday’s game, he played a great amount time scoring 12 points in 21 minutes on the floor.
Coach Hopkins’ reply on Carter: “Nahziah is going to be a great player. He’s young, he’s still learning, but he has great talent. He competes. He’s a great teammate and he’s just scratching the surface. So we’re really happy with his progress. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
Although they didn’t leave New York the way they had planned, the only thing that Washington can do moving forward is continue to get better and learn from their mistakes as their season goes forward.
They still have a lot of non-conference games coming up, but two of the biggest on their schedule are on December 6th in Kansas City, Missouri against Kansas and at home on December 10th against Gonzaga, who played in the NCAA national championship game back in March. Games like these will get the Huskies ready for Pac-12 conference play, which starts on the road on December 29th in Los Angeles against USC.
Now that Coach Hopkins has had his first game at the World’s Most Famous Arena as a head coach, it was time to ask how he felt about it. He replied, “Well, you know, obviously, Syracuse was a special place for me. Played there, coached there for a long time, but I can’t tell you how grateful and blessed I am to be the head coach at the University of Washington. From the leadership, to the team to the community, it’s been an incredible experience, it’s everything I ever dreamt of being a head coach. The fans are great, the team is great, there’s a great recruiting base. People kept asking me, ‘Your first game [at the Garden] is against Providence, a Big East team, but you’re coaching a West Coast school. But to just be the head coach at the University of Washington is incredible, and I’m just honored to be there.”
It’s pretty simple: same coach, new program. It’s going to take time for Coach Hopkins’ vision of what he wants the Washington Huskies to be to come to fruition. But to quote the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams,” it’s like the famous adage, “If you build it, people will come.” All it takes is time and that’s something that Coach Hopkins now has: time.