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Mike Hopkins and the trajectory of change in the UW MBB program

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With the upset over #2 Kansas, things just got a whole lot more interesting for the Huskies.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Change is difficult.

It does not matter the subject. Simply, the act of defying inertia and moving out of a comfort zone creates ripples, and occasionally riptides, of resistance that pushes against the change being attempted.

This is true in all aspects of life: relationships, careers, preferred shaving creams and, yes, college basketball.

When UW made the difficult decision to replace long-time coach Lorenzo Romar with a rookie head coach from an East Coast program, Husky faithful were confronted with the sudden, in-your-face, oh-hell-no, call-a-lawyer and grab-a-pitchfork kind of change that many had sought but few were prepared for.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Kansas
David Crisp settled into the PG role in the stunning upset win.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

As that change took hold and the ripple effects stemming from that change turned into real consequences, the fanbase fractured. It devolved into countless arguments on a myriad of subjects with most fans arguing over one another and few speaking to one another.

Those consequences, at first, seemed severe. The best recruiting class in the history of the program was blown to smithereens save for one very ... and I think we can all agree on the use of the term “VERY” ... important Romar recruit. The first pass of offers by Hopkins to his targeted assistant coaches was met with denial after denial. Rumors of discontent among existing players, including “will he or won’t he” situations with both Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle, persisted.

But Mike Hopkins, not ever described by any person who ever met him as a passive kind of guy, persisted. He improvised on his strategy in filling out his staff, he assembled a patchwork of warm bodies to fill out his recruiting class and he went to work winning over first the hearts and then the minds of the players who had opted-in on the difficult journey that was put before them.

The results up until this week have been mixed. The product put on the floor by the Huskies men’s basketball team has hardly resembled “good basketball”, even when put up against the lowly standard set by each of the two young teams that preceded this one.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Kansas
Sam Timmins is evolving into a very serviceable big man in the Mike Hopkins offense.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

And yet the signs of change settling down and transforming into the new normal endured. These signs didn’t jump out at you like a neon sign alight on the Vegas strip. They have been more subtle. Like how a Matisse Thybulle provides help D on an outside entry pass into the post or how a Sam Timmins has learned to play in the post without the ball. Small improvements. Meaningful changes.

Fans in all walks of life are fickle entities who don’t normally buy into the kind of incrementalism described above. Certainly, UW fans fall into that bucket. Up to this point, you would be hard pressed to find a single home game among the six that have been played where Husky fan attendance got up over 1000 people. You would more likely find a livelier crowd at a stop light than in Alaska Airlines Arena during a men’s basketball game.

Indeed, most of the same fans who were clamoring for the very change that occurred have yet to muster up the fortitude to do the one thing that AD Jen Cohen and coach Hopkins himself have made their appeals for: they haven’t bought a ticket. It would seem that even the most boisterous critics of the previous regime have yet to fully commit themselves to the change in the trajectory of the program.

This is not surprising. Like I said, change is hard.

But the path of incrementalism broke wildly this past week when UW marched out on the road and laid a beating on the #2 Kansas Jayhawks. In front of a sold out crowd - the size of which dwarfed all of UW’s home crowds combined - the Huskies took a major step forward in their change process.

They defended the perimeter. They got shots at the rim. They involved their big man. They dished out assists. Assists!!! They sliced, they diced and they chopped up the Kansas defense on the way to a stunning 74-65 upset over an undefeated Kansas team who already held victories over teams like Kentucky and - yup - Syracuse.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Kansas
Effort and hustle are two words that are starting to stick to the identity of the Huskies program.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

That the Huskies were imperfect in their victory goes without saying. It is true that some early foul trouble and some inexplicably cold shooting from the Jayhawks played a factor in this outcome.

But that almost feels besides the point. After all, UW was assessed by ESPN as having only a 3.2% of winning this game beforehand. The Dawgs were a 30 point underdawg. They had never beaten a top 2 team on the road before last week. All big wins have their fair share of good breaks, and this game was no different.

It was the upset of a lifetime, even if very few Husky fans actually saw it. It was clear evidence that the change underway has already yielded results. The question now on everybody’s minds is “what’s next”?

Whether or not this team uses the victory over Kansas as a stepping stone towards some greater goal this season - dare I say even a ticket to the NCAA tournament - remains to be seen. The truth of the matter is that the Huskies are still a team with an imbalanced roster who are trying to digest a completely new style of playing basketball. This would be a difficult task even if UW were the second coming of the Kentucky Wildcats.

But with the Kansas victory UW has earned itself an opportunity to accelerate its change process. This victory has bought Coach Hopkins unimpeachable credibility on his vision for success. We know that his system can work because, darn it all, he beat the #2 team in the nation with it. Hopkins must use this opportunity to hammer this message home and capture the attention of anyone on the roster who hasn’t yet bought into the new way doing things.

Additionally, and this is a big one, Hopkins must leverage this win to up his game on the recruiting trail. It is just a fact that Hopkins hasn’t yet been able to break through with some of the kinds of upper tier talents that were committing to Romar before the change. We can wax poetic all we like about how Hopkins doesn’t need “stars” and that a team full of Michael Carters and Hameir Wrights are all he needs. But those romantic, Hoosier-inspired sentiments are not rooted in reality. Even Gene Hackman needed Jimmy Chitwood. UW needs to land more players of Jaylen Nowell’s caliber if it wants to take the next step as a championship level team.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Kansas
What is Jaylen Nowell’s ceiling? UW fans are certain that they’ve not yet seen it.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

To this point, Hopkins hasn’t enjoyed the kind of status or credibility required to land these kinds of players. How could he? Until this week, he was just some rookie coach who had literally done nothing on the court.

That all has changed.

Sure, one game a program does not make. But Hopkins now has tangible evidence that his system has, at the very least, the potential to succeed. All you have to do is look at the evidence.

That Kansas game was not a fluke. UW did to Kansas what it has done to just about every team it has beaten this year: once it got the lead, it wrestled the outcome to the ground and killed it off just as a lion stalks a gazelle. This is a big, big deal for Coach Hop and one that needs to translate into a recruiting win or two.

Finally, the athletic department must translate this win into butts in seats. Hopkins and his staff simply cannot convince athletes that UW is the place to be with attendance levels looking like the arena was built on top of a nuclear waste dump site. The student section needs to be revitalized and coming out to see UW basketball needs to become “a thing” again.

The hard work put into this change by Hopkins, his staff and his players has put all of these possibilities within reach. The “best case scenario” is clearly in play. Now is the time to capitalize.