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Washington Basketball Roundtable: Passing out blame for a miserable season

What have we learned about Mike Hopkins and others through the struggles?

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As the Huskies have continued their downward spiral on the hardwood, one of our writers asked for insight on how we got to this point. The discussion that followed gives some insight into the struggles and what it means for the program.

Lucas Shannon

So, I’m curious to get the thoughts of those of you who follow this team closely. I have not followed terribly closely this year, but I has happened to this team? I have largely checked out of college basketball over the years (the style of play in the game just doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, I’m a big NBA guy) so I am far from an authority on anything happening with the program. Which is why I want to hear from you guys who do follow it closely. I was not overly thrilled when we hired Hopkins, but I went from being pleasantly surprised the first year to a believer last year, and now I really don’t know what to think. I think it would be a bad decision for us to fire him after this year, but, this collapse combined with the lack of a recruiting class for next year have given me serious concerns about the future of the program. What the hell do you guys make of this season and the future prospects of the program under Hopkins?

Andrew Berg

The collapse this year has been the product of a large number of things-big and small- breaking against the Huskies. Losing Quade Green without adequate PG coverage was a major problem and a messy offense has become a disaster without him. Jaden McDaniels is the type of special athlete that a coach has to recruit and play if given the chance, but his poor on-court decision-making and technique have made him a net negative player. On a smaller level, it has been disappointing that Naz Carter and Jamal Bey didn’t take steps forward as perimeter offensive threats to fill the Jaylen Nowell-sized hole in the lineup. While Hameir Wright has shot better of late, he is far from a well-rounded player and his own offensive limitations were crucial in some of the earlier losses. Injuries and eligibility issues have pushed Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuon Battle into roles they’re not ready for yet. The only thing that has unquestionably gone right is the plug-and-play mastery of Isaiah Stewart. It’s a damn shame that he’s languishing on this letdown of a team because he is one of the most fun Huskies to watch in many years.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The cumulative effect has clearly taken a toll on the team psychologically. The defensive slippage in the last few games has looked almost entirely mental. Guys are rotating more slowly and not contesting as aggressively. I don’t say that to make excuses for the poor play, but it’s part of the problem.

What does that mean for Hopkins overall? I think you have to look at the components of his coaching profile. On the recruiting front, he brought in a great class this year. I don’t hold him responsible for McDaniels being what he is. Hopkins had a matter of a few weeks to coach McDaniels and it’s going to take years to refine those rough edges if it ever happens. Any coach in the country would’ve taken McDaniels and 99% would have stuck with him at least as long as Hopkins has because the team had Sweet 16 or better aspirations and wasn’t going to get to that level without McDaniels playing like something close to what we all expected from him. Stewart was a home run. Tsohonis and Battle are good longer-term building blocks. He has recruited well while he has been at UW.

The “go big or go home” strategy for 2020 recruiting is looking dubious. I understand the motivation to keep scholarships open for 2021 when the local mother-lode graduates from high school. At the same time, we’re now looking down the barrel of losing the best player from a bad team with very little to replace him. Of course, Hopkins didn’t know that this team would be such a letdown when he decided to only go big game hunting for this recruiting cycle. If he knew that Carter and Bey would largely stagnate, maybe he would have been more likely to take something like a 3* wing recruit. If he knew that the team would look so hopeless at this point in the year, maybe he would’ve felt more motivated to bring in some fresh blood. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s fair to point out that this decision appears to have backfired, but most of us would have done something similar under the same circumstances.

Finally, the biggest question I have about Hopkins at this point is his adaptability. He did extremely well his first two seasons. He took a team that looked lost in Lorenzo Romar’s last year and won the Pac-12 regular season twice in a row. He got out of the first round of the tournament. He took a hodge-podge of leftover pieces and built a team that was exciting and fun to watch. This year, he has a very different core. He has adjusted the defensive zone a bit and it has not worked. His energetic, enthusiastic style does not appear to be keeping the team fully engaged through these difficulties. I would hope he would be able to adapt faster and more effectively because the team has lost quite a few games to teams that are simply not as good. I can’t pinpoint the motivational or developmental adjustments he should make, but we can all see that some adaptation is urgently needed.

I’m still optimistic about Hopkins going forward, but the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about Jim Boeheim retiring and leaving the Syracuse job open has been replaced by very mild discomfort.

Kirk Degrasse

I think Andrew pretty much nailed-it.

I’ll add a few additional thoughts: what has really exacerbated the feelings about the collapse of the team this year is the massive delta in good feelings about the program. Hop arrived to low expectations for what the team would do only to see them win 21 games and play in the post-season and then follow that up with a conference title and NCAA 1st round win. Things are feeling great around the program and while the losses to graduation and early entry were significant, in comes a fantastic recruiting class. Many figured the team would keep rolling, and while they stumbled here and there early on they also showed their potential and gave #1 Baylor their only loss on the season. To see them completely collapse since Green has been out has been tough to process.

It may sound overly apologetic to Hopkins, but it sure seems like a lot of it is just really bad luck. Green was clearly the PG this team needed to make things click on the offensive end, and despite coaches walking him to classes Green still didn’t get things done. Short of chaining him to his chair in each class each day I’m not sure what more they could have done. And with McDaniels, he was a player they had to recruit. If they hadn’t hotly pursued a local 5-star kid that was open to coming here, Hopkins would have been crucified and it would have had negative repercussions in the local hoops scene. Unfortunately for Hopkins it may blow up in his face anyway because Jaden is still so raw and undisciplined. And to cap it off the 2020 class didn’t have a great pool of local talent and he couldn’t close the deal on the highly-rated guys he offered, so it’s basically J’Ron Brooks to replace Sam Timmins, Stewart & McDaniels (at least).

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, Hopkins clearly whiffed on PG recruiting his first two seasons. Carter III didn’t pan out and so far Hardy doesn’t seem to fit what this team needs. Bey is doing what he can, but he’s not really a PG. Maybe the team survives this season had Green not punted school, but we can see now it was a precarious situation at PG. Tsohonis shows promise, but obviously things aren’t clicking overall the way they were in November and December with Green starting.

Max can weigh in better than I can on this, but it seems as though absent Green there just isn’t a guy on the offensive end that can feed Stewart consistently, nor a guy that can consistently break down a defense to create a shot the way Nowell could. Green was that guy this year, and maybe Tsohonis gets there, but right now we’re paying for the fact that McDaniels, Naz and Bey just haven’t become wings that can consistently break down a D. Naz has the physical ability but too often drives out of control and into a charge. McDaniels has similar issues and can get stripped since his dribble is tall, and Bey just doesn’t quite have the quicks it seems to beat guys off the dribble.

Next year is going to be a litmus test for Hopkins. It’s 100% his roster at that point, and there’s raw talent there. Can he mold them into a contender? Can he fill up the 2021 class with the considerable local talent available?

Andrew Berg

That’s a great point about expectations. Nothing feels better than winning when you don’t expect it, and nothing feels worse than losing when you should win. We’ve run the gamut the last 3 years.

Kirk Degrasse

I think we all knew that this year might not match-up with the last two, but I sure didn’t see a collapse of 2014/15 proportions either. And for it to be so sudden. They went from “this team should finish in the upper half of the conference and might make the NCAA Tournament if things break right” to “Can this team win another game this season?” Think about how weird it must be for Baylor fans. We have the only win against them and the team now looks like hot garbage.

Max Vrooman

Those poor confused Baylor fans. Let us pity them.

There is certainly an element of bad luck involved. The late game struggles clearly have gotten into the players’ heads at this point. But there’s a reason the Huskies held almost steady in most computer ratings up until the ASU game despite all the losses. This team ranks 350/353 in KenPom’s luck metric which assumes results in close games will even out over time. Unfortunately for Washington it has evened out from very lucky last year to very unlucky this year.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Tennessee Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously there’s a little more to it than luck. Last year Jaylen Nowell could take over down the stretch and almost always get off a good shot or drive to the hoop, get fouled, and knock down free throws. Without Quade Green no one left on this roster can do that. The team wants to get the ball to their best player in Isaiah Stewart but the opposition can just double team him in the post. We should ideally be able to run a pick and roll with him but none of our guards are capable of dribbling around a hedge and passing the ball before they can recover. This team has played well enough to have won an extra 3+ games post-Quade. This isn’t Romar’s last year where we seemingly feel behind by 25+ every single game.

My computer rankings had UW 6th coming into the year and minus Quade and given Jaden’s un-5* like performance would have dropped another few spots. In all likelihood it’s somewhat as simple as Hop got too much credit the last 2 years for overachieving in the win column with teams that didnt have great stat profiles and shouldn’t get all the blame for doing the reverse this year.