The Huskies kick off the regular season tonight at home against Western Kentucky. The game starts at 7:30p and will be on ESPNU. If you’ve had your attention fully on football for the past 6 months then here’s a primer with some of the UWDP staff giving their opinions on a variety of UW MBB topics.
We are approximately 18 months into the Coach Hopkins era. How have your expectations for the program changed since the hiring was initially announced?
Max Vrooman: I have definitely been much more impressed with Coach Hop’s performance than I expected to be. Romar didn’t leave an empty cupboard behind so UW’s success last season shouldn’t have come as a complete shock but Hop has certainly appeared to do well at maximizing his on-hand talent. By next April I think we’ll know if Hop is the really real deal. Washington has a legitimate shot with two of the top 5 players in the country for the 2019 class. Pull in either of them (or both if you want to get crazy) and make the NCAA tournament this year and I think Washington is in as good a shape as they were in the early 2000’s under Romar. If he misses out on both of the major recruiting targets and the Huskies end up in the NIT again? Then you have to wonder when Washington is finally going to break through and this looks more like the full rebuild we expected when Romar was let go.
Chris Landon: My expectations have definitely risen since my dire initial forecasts for this team. At this time a year ago, we had no idea what Jaylen Nowell would be able to do offensively. That he decided to renew his commitment to Hopkins following his hiring turned out to be the most critical component to last year’s surprising Coach of the Year run.
I continue to harbor concerns about this offense, just not as amplified as last year. Dickerson and Nowell provide a good one-two punch, but I’m still not sure where the perimeter relief will come from. Thybulle isn’t a great shooter and I don’t have a ton of confidence that either Naz Carter or Hameir Wright are going to do that. Much will fall to Dom Green and maybe a surprise player (Jamal Bey?) to carry that load. We’ll have to see.
Rob Foxcurran: Like many, I expected last year to be an improvement on Romar’s final year, if for no other reason than it’s hard to lose more than 16 out of 18 conference games. Could I have envisioned a scenario before the start of last season where Hop would end up winning 21 games and Pac-12 Coach of the Year... Sure I could have. But I didn’t. I never once entertained the thought of either of those things happening. And yet, here were stand. About to begin year 2 of the Hopkins’ era after both of those events came to pass in year 1.
I still have some degree of skepticism that the rest of the league won’t eventually figure out the zone. Yes, it worked pretty dang well last year against a bunch of teams that almost never have to face it. But I worry that teams will be more prepared to attack the zone this season. That said, this group of seniors will have another year together under their belt, and another year in this system. Combine that with an experienced group of sophomores and improved front court depth, and I can see this team at least winning another 20 games this season. I think their ceiling for success could be as high as a Sweet-16 run, but I won’t count my chickens before they hatch. I’ll just be excited if they make the tournament.
What is my level of confidence in Hopkins beyond this season? If he can continue to recruit at a solid level, I can see this team moving in the right direction. He has a proven system in place, which is something you can always lean on. Recruit to suit it, and I can see this team moving back to consistently being in the top-half of the conference.
Who is your preseason pick for Team MVP?
Max: Matisse Thybulle. The zone defense worked last season despite missing the elite shot blocker in the middle. That guy is now in the program but Sam Timmins/Noah Dickerson will still probably play the majority of the minutes at center. Which means that Thybulle’s insane ability to get his hand on every ball and into every passing lane will again be the saving grace of the defense. He struggled shooting the ball early in the season but made 3-pointers at better than 42% in conference play. At this point his ball handling probably is what it is but getting that kind of shooting all year will make him the most valuable Husky.
Chris: I think I predicted Nowell in this space a year ago and I’d do so again. Thybulle is a great individual defender, but the team plays really good team D. Nowell’s offense is a unique contributor and one that the Dawgs can’t live without.
Rob: Both Thybulle and Nowell are great choices and I think either one could prove to be the likely MVP. But for the sake of mixing things up, I’ll go with Noah Dickerson. In a perfect situation, he could wind up being the team’s second leading scorer behind Nowell, lead the team in boards, and be the second best defender behind Thybulle. The first two are more conceivable given that both were true last season. Where Dickerson could really become a finished product is on the defensive side of the ball. With the addition of 7’ freshman C Bryan Penn-Johnson, I would expect Dickerson to have to spend less time sharing the 5 role with Sam Timmins this season and more time as a 4, which is a better fit for his size and skill set.
Who is the most likely Husky to break out this season (the returning starting 5 of Crisp, Nowell, Thybulle, Dickerson, and Timmins are ineligible)?
Max: Nahziah Carter. The high flying sophomore showed plenty of flash last season and every indication is that he has progressed by leaps and bounds since then. Carter’s athleticism is truly elite and if he can put everything else together it will be impossible to keep him off the court. He ended the year shooting 41% from 3 which I’m not sure is sustainable but if it is then he’ll be impossible to guard.
Chris: I know that many people are enamored with Naz Carter and his athleticism. I could definitely see him having a strong sophomore season and I’m as excited about seeing his dunks as anyone. It’ll probably be him because, let’s face it, there isn’t going to be more than an eight man rotation on this team with the other two backups - Green and Wright - pretty much doing what they do.
Rob: I’ll go with Dominic Green. Given that he had somewhat of a breakout season last year from the bench, I could see his progress as the team’s 6th man continuing as he becomes a real offensive spark plug. Also of note... It may be hard for him to compete for meaningful minutes as a freshman on this particular team, but Jamal Bey could wind up carving out a role for himself if he’s as good as advertised.
Which true freshman are you most excited to see in action?
Max: Bryan Penn-Johnson. Elijah Hardy has the clearest path to playing time if he can develop quickly enough and Jamal Bey is probably the best freshman right this second. But nothing makes me happier than having an absolute physical specimen at center deflecting everything that comes near the rim. That non-conference run with Robert Upshaw single handedly supporting the defense was so much fun and it’s hard to look at BPJ’s frame and not think that similar dominance is eventually possible if he learns the intricacies of the zone quickly.
Chris: Nate Roberts. I don’t really expect to see Roberts get a ton of playing time this year. But he does seem to be the closest thing to a scoring-capable big man that will reside on this roster once Dickerson moves on. I’d like to see what kinds of moves he has.
Rob: I might have said BPJ for the same reason as Max, but I’m really interested to see Nevada’s 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year, Jamal Bey, in action. After watching his highlights for the umteenth time, I can’t wait for his first smooth jumper from deep to sail through the net at Hec Ed.
What is the best case scenario for the 2018-19 Washington Huskies (conference standing/postseason)?
Max: This team absolutely has enough in the tank to win the Pac-12. I don’t think it’s the most likely outcome but it doesn’t take many breaks for it to happen. I think Oregon will be the best overall team in the Pac-12 unless one or more of their 5 star freshmen really fail to live up to expectations. But it only takes one or two upsets to come out 1 game ahead in the standings.
We’ve seen Syracuse (including this past year) advance far beyond expectations in the NCAA tournament because teams on short notice don’t know how to prepare for the zone. Despite that I have a hard time seeing this team making it past a Sweet 16 unless they get a massive break (i.e complete chaos in their side of the bracket). I’ll say a #4 seed and an eventual loss in the Sweet 16 to a #1 seed as the best case scenario.
Chris: The PAC 12 seems a tad ambitious, though I wouldn’t write off a dark horse run. For that to happen, this Huskies D would have to drag a lot of offensively talented teams into the mud with it. We simply don’t have enough three point shooting to keep up with the Oregons and UCLAs if that doesn’t happen.
That said, I do think our schedule and the nature of our ability to limit opponent offenses means that this team could be a tournament team. The best case scenario would be a mid single digit seeding coming out of the upper third of the PAC 12 standings with a couple of wins against ranked opponents in their non-conference schedule.
Rob: It looks like my thoughts are right in line with Max and Chris so I won’t overdue this. I think we could finish 2nd or 3rd in the Pac-12, and go as far as the Sweet 16 in the tournament. The latter half of the prediction being about as high as I’m willing to let this team’s ceiling go. That said, I do think this is a tournament team, and anything less than a tournament bid would be a huge disappointment for the players and fans.
What is the worst case scenario for the 2018-19 Washington Huskies (conference standing/postseason)?
Max: I’ve harbored secret doubts about this year despite the positive history of teams returning such a large percentage of their minutes from the previous season. The advanced numbers for last year’s team despite the win totals were not encouraging and while the defense got better as time went on, the offense got worse. The same concerns about ball handling and outside shooting from last season still exist this year. If the Huskies can’t get better productivity from the PG position I could envision a season similar to last year in which Washington finishes 6th in the conference and is forced to settle for the NIT yet again.
Chris: The worst case scenario is that the rest of the PAC figures out how to attack the Huskies zone after now having seen it for a full season. Not unlike how PAC 12 defenses eventually figured out Oregon football’s tempo. If pressure falls to the UW offense to carry the team, there simply are not enough horses to do so reliably. In that case, we could fall to a bottom third finish in the conference with teams like Colorado, Utah and ASU all passing us by. The line is razor thin with this team.
Rob: It seems we all have the same concern here. Take away Nowell and Dickerson, and I’m not confident any one player on the rest of this team, at least from what we saw last season, could pick up the offensive slack. If the offense does not consistently click this season, so goes this team’s hopes of sustained success. With our tough non-conference schedule, I could envision a scenario where this team takes a step back offensively and finishes slightly above .500 and towards the bottom third of the conference near the likes of an Oregon State or Colorado. In this scenario, an NIT birth wouldn’t even be a given.