When Mike Hopkins accepted the offer to become the men’s basketball coach at Washington just over a year ago, many fans assumed that he would turn the program into Syracuse West. After all, Hopkins spent his collegiate playing career and an incredible 22 years with the Orange. Unlike most coaches who meld together philosophies from several different mentors, Hopkins spent nearly three decades learning from Jim Boeheim.
If Hopkins replicated the record of success that Syracuse experienced in his time with the program, most Husky fans would gladly accept those results. In the 22 years Hopkins spent on the staff, Syracuse never had a losing record, and only had a losing conference record one time. The team went to the NCAA Tournament 16 times, the Final Four four times, and won the National Championship in 2003. Although Washingtonians might want to avoid the disciplinary record and sanctions from that Syracuse tenure, the on-court product stands as an exceptional model.
Some of the hallmarks of Syracuse were clearly apparent in Washington’s approach from day one. The 2-3 zone defense was an immediate staple and Hopkins has made it a priority to recruit the sort of long, athletic defenders who optimize that strategy. On the other hand, no two coaches are exactly the same, so there are bound to be some divergences in the approaches of Boeheim and Hopkins. One year in, I broke down the Huskies’ style of play compared to the last three years of Syracuse by looking at both teams’ national ranks in various categories.
One important difference between the approach that Boeheim uses at Syracuse and that which Hopkins used last season is that Boeheim has had decades to institute his philosophies while Hopkins started from scratch a year ago. Hopkins inherited some talented players, but a roster that fit together somewhat clumsily, particularly for his desired style of play. Washington’s two best offensive players last year were almost indisputably Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson. Nowell specializes in the midrange game and Dickerson posts up with his back to the basket more often than most big men in an era dominated by the pick-and-roll. As such, the Huskies shot more often and better from two-point range than Syracuse normally does. The Huskies ranked 83rd (out of 347) in the nation in two-point attempts compared to Syracuse’s three-year average of 159th. Likewise, the Huskies- led by Dickerson’s efficient inside game- ranked 123rd in two-point percentage, while Syracuse averaged 223rd in the same category.
Just like Washington had some quirks on their 2018 roster, Syracuse had their own statistical anomalies. Anyone who watched their surprising March Madness run saw that the roster was chalk-full of defensive specialists who could not shoot. That construction led to Syracuse taking far fewer three pointers this year than in the previous two years and making them at an abysmal rate. After ranking 21st and 62nd in three-point attempts in ’16 and ’17, the Orange were 241st last season. They also cratered from 119th and 53rd to 330th in three point accuracy. The Huskies did not excel in either category- 231st in three-point attempts and 192nd in accuracy. Those rates put them on pace with Syracuse’s three-year averages, but only because the Orange nose-dived last season. That exception likely proves the rule- Boeheim prefers an attack centered on three-point shooting when his personnel allows it and Hopkins likely does as well. David Crisp led the Huskies in three-point attempts, but only converted a putrid 28.6% of them. As the other starting guard, Nowell preferred playing off the dribble to spot up shooting. More confidence and consistency from outside would enhance his NBA chances and fill a hole on the roster. Improvement in that category may take more time while Hopkins attracts young players who can shoot from deep, but the numbers indicate that it will be a point of focus for the offense.
Setting aside the distance of their jump shots, both Syracuse and Washington played an attacking style of offense that led to high numbers of free throw attempts and turnovers. Although the Huskies got to the line at a well above-average rate, they did not shoot well from the stripe- only 228th in the country. Even though the key offensive contributors- Nowell, Dickerson, and Matisse Thybulle- shot respectably from the line, every other player on the team shot 68% or worse, which dragged the team average down near the bottom in the NCAA.
One final distinction between the Huskies and Orange was their ability to make plays for their teammates. The Huskies ranked 262nd in total assists compared to a three-year average of 131st for Syracuse. In fact, Syracuse ranked in 81st and 44th in ’16 and ’17 before another dip due to their poor shooting last year. If the team wants to play a modern, aggressive offensive style that shoots threes and gets to the rim, it will require more playmaking ability than what Crisp provided last year. It’s why Hopkins prioritized the PG position in the recruiting process and it will be a key element in the progress of the UW offense.
Defensively, the distinctive 2-3 zone instantly made the Huskies resemble the classic Syracuse approach. Anecdotally, it appeared to me that Hopkins favored a more aggressive perimeter style that challenged three-point shooters and encouraged them to settle for midrange jumpers. The defenders at the top of the zone extended beyond the arc more frequently than the Syracuse defenders usually do, and the outside baseline defenders helped on skip passes into the slot. Syracuse, meanwhile, tends to pack the paint a bit more defensively and allow opponents to attempt difficult threes out of rhythm. The numbers agree with that assessment- the Huskies were slightly above-average in the number of three-point attempts allowed- 119th fewest-, while Syracuse consistently allows among the most three point attempts in the country. UW was also fairly effective at limiting three-point accuracy, but Syracuse is consistently among the best in the country in that era. Anyone who has watched Syracuse play often enough is familiar with the offensive pattern of comfortably passing around the perimeter without finding a seam until the shot clock has suddenly reached single digits and an off-balance has to jack a low-percentage three.
It’s worth noting that UW allowed far fewer three-point attempts at a lower rate as the year went along. They led the Pac-12 in fewest opponent three-point attempts and lowest opponent three-point shooting. Although the Huskies did a good job limiting threes, the blitzing style allowed opponents to get clean looks from two and the Huskies were below-average in defending two-point shots. Blitzing shooters got them off of the line, but created lanes to the basket without a true rim protector in the paint.
For example, look at how far out Thybulle picks up Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in this clip, and how little help he has when Mykhailiuk blows by him:
By contrast, look at how much deeper the Syracuse guards play with the ball on top of the key:
Neither strategy is necessarily better; it’s a matter of picking your poison. Syracuse will let other teams shoot more threes with the presumption that they will be able to step out and contest. Washington wants to force opponents off of the three-point line and make them drive into the teeth of the defense. The problem is that those teeth were not sharp enough in year one.
We have already heard about Hopkins’s preference for long athletes who can contribute to an aggressive defense. Even with the current roster, the Huskies mimicked the Orange’s tendency to rank near the top in the country in both steals and blocks. The Huskies were 15th in steals and 19th in blocks. Over three years, the Orange average 19th in steals and 28th in blocks. Part of the reason that these numbers are so impressive is that it’s difficult to beat a zone one-on-one, so teams have to move the ball to get clean looks. That ball-movement leads to steals, but it also leads to assists. Over the last three years, Syracuse has not ranked better than 345th nationally in limiting opponent assists, but they have maintained an excellent defense nonetheless. Therefore, the fact that UW ranked 336th in the same category should not be a major cause for concern.
One area where UW diverged wildly from Syracuse was on the glass. Year in and year out, Syracuse rates well at both offensive and defensive rebounding. On average, they have rated 56th in offensive rebounding and 109th in defensive rebounding. The Dawgs did not fare so well last year- only 186th offensively and 234th defensively. On the surface, it would seem that a team with Dickerson and Sam Timmins in the middle would rebound well, but a deeper dive shows that those two were the only decent rebounders on the entire team. Poor rebounding from the guards and wings combined with a propensity to play small lineups with Hameir Wright or Naz Carter as the nominal power forward led to some very poor performances on the glass. With big men like Bryan Penn-Johnson and Nate Roberts on their way to join the Huskies next season, the rebounding should gradually turn the corner, and consistent rim protection should not be far behind.
The areas where UW differed from Syracuse in style of play can mostly be chalked up to the type of personnel that Hopkins inherited when he took over the team. He did not have the sort of outside shooting or offensive play-making that many Syracuse teams relied on. Instead, he played to his players’ strengths and worked inside to Dickerson and let Nowell attack off the dribble. If the historical Syracuse template is any indication of how Hopkins wants his team to play, he will likely find more players who can shoot from the perimeter or create shots for teammates. The fact that Hopkins did not try to fit a square peg into a round hole is reassuring, because the Huskies likely would have looked much worse if poor shooters jacked up dozens of threes that they had little chance of making.
Defensively, Hopkins seems to have a slightly different approach within the 2-3 zone than Boeheim does. The Hopkins version focuses on limiting three-point attempts, which may be a more effective version for the modern game that has more and better perimeter shooters than ever before. Nonetheless, both teams share the same aggressive style that leads to lots of forced turnovers, even if that aggression leads to some easy baskets off of assists. The next step in the evolution of the Hopkins style will be the addition of bigger and more athletic defenders who can protect the basket and maximize the team’s defensive strategy.
Altogether, Hopkins’s UW team is more like the Syracuse team’s on which he assisted than it is different. He has made some adjustments based on his personnel, his opposition, and his own preferences, but he has not abandoned the fundamentals that made his mentor successful. If Hopkins goes on to have even half the success that Boeheim had at Syracuse, he won’t just be a success, he’ll be the greatest coach in the program’s history.