The 2020-21 Washington Huskies men’s basketball season has mercifully come to a close. Expectations weren’t exactly high to begin with as the Dawgs were picked 9th in the preseason media poll but obviously 5 or fewer conference wins and a bottom-two conference finish for the second consecutive year failed to meet even that low bar. With the offseason upon us there are two primary questions on everyone’s minds. The second of which helps inform the answer to the first.
- How is this team going to meaningfully improve next year?
- Is Jennifer Cohen going to fire Mike Hopkins?
We’re going to be diving deep into that second question before we get around to the first at a later date. As much as I want to get fully into the statistics (and those who know me know I’m truly chomping at the bit) we have to recognize the reality that finances are heavily involved in this decision.
Every indication appears to be that the Huskies are on the hook for any remaining money on Mike Hopkins’ contract if he were to be fired without cause (i.e. not because of a scandal). The UW is protected if Hop leaves for another job as that seemed the most obvious concern when he signed his 6-year contract extension after the Huskies’ returned to the NCAA tournament back in the spring of 2019. But if he’s fired before the end of his contract then Washington is still going to have to pay Hopkins the remaining money.
There are 4 years remaining on the deal worth a total of $12.2 million. There are SEC football programs that despite the pandemic were willing to pay that kind of buyout in the blink of an eye. That’s not the case for UW basketball. Jen Cohen said last month that Washington is planning on moving forward with a new basketball facility that was funded through donations and you can be sure that they squeezed every last drop out of the major basketball boosters to get to that total.
Maybe there’s enough frustration with Hopkins that folks would be willing to pony up $12+ million to get rid of him. But that seems unlikely. In order to make the move given UW’s current budgetary situation with the pandemic it means that Cohen would have to be convinced that there was no hope for improvement and that not cutting the cord now would hurt the program more than the $5-6 million short-term hit required to pay Hop and his replacement for next year.
Cohen made the tough decision once. 4 years ago we sat here coming off an epically disappointing last-place finish with Lorenzo Romar at the helm and a #1 rated recruiting class coming. Cohen decided that the roots were poisoned deep enough that the following season’s recruiting boost didn’t cancel out the long-term stagnation. Now we sit in a similar position but with obviously a more dire financial outlook though also no recruiting class at risk (I think Jackson Grant would keep his commitment to UW no matter who took over).
So ultimately none of what follows truly matters. The finances almost surely dictate that Hop will be around next year. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take a look at should Hopkins be let go.
In order to help evaluate Hopkins’ tenure we’re going to use the tool I built several years ago in response to the Romar hire/fire decision. I’ve put together a system that takes players’ experience, recruiting ranking, and prior performance to help evaluate a team’s true ability level. I then compare that total to the KenPom adjusted efficiency margin (aEM) of that team which as a metric hits the sweet spot of readily available for historical results and accuracy.
The delta between the predicted and actual values is what I attribute to the nebulous bucket of “coaching”. It could be that a given underperforming team was talented but didn’t have a true point guard/all their talent was stacked at one position. It could be that the team had bad chemistry. It could be the team was running a terrible scheme. All of those issues ultimately fall under the purview of the head coach and so by taking the difference in those results we can determine which coaches are prone to either under or over-achieving.
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane through each of Hop’s seasons to try to put it into better context now that we have the gift of hindsight.
Mike Hopkins was hired in March of 2017 and immediately had to go to work trying to re-recruit the #1 class in the country. Unsurprisingly, the Porter brothers followed their dad to Missouri when he was hired as an assistant there. Daejon Davis deciding to head to Stanford hurt but Hop won the most essential battles. He kept Jaylen Nowell in the fold and managed to talk David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, and Noah Dickerson into not transferring.
That first team had some growing pains adopting to Hop’s zone defense but a few key pieces emerged. Matisse Thybulle became a dominant defensive force while Jaylen Nowell became a reliable primary ball handler from day one. Dominic Green also went from being literally the worst offensive player in the conference to a deadeye shooter.
After a miraculous upset win over Arizona (thanks to Green’s 3-pointer) it looked like the Huskies had an outside shot at an NCAA at-large berth but they dropped 3 straight after that and ultimately lost 6 of 9 to drop them in the NIT. Washington beat Boise State in the first round but lost at Saint Mary’s in a close game.
Washington’s final 21-13 record clearly overrated the actual quality of their play as the Huskies finished 98th at KenPom with a +7.09 adjusted efficiency margin. The Dawgs were 9-3 in games decided by 5 or fewer points playing just the 77th toughest schedule in the country and had 4 losses by 20+ points.
My system had the Huskies projected to finish with a +12.87 aEM which meant Hopkins had a coaching score of -5.78. That coaching performance was 64th out of 75 (power 6 only) for that season.
With literally almost the entire team returning (finished #1 in minutes continuity at 90%+) expectations were high for the Huskies. My model projected them as the 2nd best team in the conference. There were a few bumps in a challenging non-conference slate including last second 2-point losses to Minnesota and Gonzaga. But then the team hit their groove and won 12 consecutive games in the middle of the year. Ultimately the Dawgs fell twice to Oregon, once in the season finale, and once in the Pac-12 tournament final but appeared to be quite clearly the 2nd best team in the conference.
Washington ended their NCAA tournament drought with an at-large appearance as a #9 seed and handily took care of Utah State in the first round. That meant a date with a very good North Carolina team who predictably dismantled the Huskies for a 22-point victory. Thybulle won the national defensive player of the year award while Nowell took home Pac-12 player of the year. Both were selected in the NBA draft while Green, Crisp, and Dickerson graduated.
Once again though the Huskies’ record outperformed their advanced stats as UW finished 13th in KenPom’s “Luck” metric. A #9 seed in the NCAA tournament suggests finishing between 33rd and 36th nationally but their final KenPom aEM was 48th behind 6 teams that missed the NCAA tournament. My model had high hopes for a team laden with senior 4-star players and projected them at +20.43 which meant their final total reflected a -6.15 grade for Hop’s coaching. That finish was almost identical to his first season at 65th out of 75 teams.
With consecutive years finishing with a well-below average coaching score I certainly had some misgivings. But Hop managed to replace the veteran core with a young but even more talented group with 5-stars Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels plus Kentucky transfer PG Quade Green. Things started out about as planned with a 10-4 non-con schedule that included a win over Baylor but close losses to ultimately top-15 teams in Gonzaga and Houston. Then Quade Green was suspended for academic ineligibility and the wheels fell off.
(The blame for Green’s inability to keep his grades up falls partially with Green and partially with the coaching staff. Without knowing exactly to what extent Green tried to deceive the staff about his situation it’s hard to apportion the blame pie. Hop is ultimately responsible for ensuring his players do their classwork but if he warned Quade about the consequences and took all steps short of handcuffing Quade to his desk at each class then it’s hard to give Hop all of it.)
Washington went through a 12-game stretch where they were just 1-11 overall. The team rebounded to win 3 of their final 5 games but it wasn’t good enough to avoid a last place finish in the conference standings. Stewart lived up to his billing, McDaniels despite his obvious talent never fully clicked, and Naz Carter only took part of the leap for which he seemed destined. Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuan Battle showed some flashes as a true freshman but none of Sam Timmins, Hameir Wright, Elijah Hardy, or Jamal Bey really got better and a few got worse.
Unlike previous years where the team’s record was better than their advanced stats, this season was the opposite. After the season opener Washington went an abysmal 3-12 in games decided by single digits which was part of UW finishing dead last in KenPom’s “Luck” metric. The team lost an inordinate amount of close games which is why they finished 54th at KenPom with a +12.67 aEM despite the losing record.
Unfortunately though even when accounting for the loss of Quade partway through the year my system still projected a +15.65 aEM for a team led by Stewart and McDaniels with Naz Carter and Jamal Bey also heavily involved. That resulted in a -2.98 margin which by virtue of that minus is still below average but was ironically the best of Hop’s tenure to that point. But once again Hop was in the 60’s at 62nd out of 75 in the 2019-20 coaching rankings.
Things obviously got off to a rough start before the season even began (beyond the issue of COVID-19). Nahziah Carter, the team’s returning scorer, was suspended indefinitely after an investigation by the school upheld that he had committed multiple instances of sexual assault. The first of the allegations was received in January of 2020 (right as the team fell apart) and took most of the year to play through the school’s disciplinary hearing system.
Hopkins is ultimately responsible for bringing a player into the program who then was found by the school to have committed multiple sexual assaults. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say Hop should’ve known that someone was capable of that 3 years down the road but he doesn’t get a pass for bad luck as if Carter had been unavailable this year because of a torn ACL.
I would’ve preferred the school and Hopkins be more transparent throughout the process. But I also understand that with no police report filed that taking action publicly before any other independent body reviewed the situation opened them up to potential liability. From the time that Carter was determined to be guilty by the school he didn’t take part in another team-sponsored activity. The entire incident is a clear black mark against Hop’s record but is not in itself reason enough to single-handedly get Hop dismissed.
Then of course we get to the actual basketball. There were a few bright spots where the Huskies eked out some narrow wins but right from the jump the team looked overmatched. It didn’t help things that Washington played a condensed and quite difficult non-conference schedule because of a rash of COVID-19 cancellations in what was supposed to be a gimme warm-up weekend. The zone defense which had been at the very worst good in his 1st 3 years was quite decidedly not good this year. For the most part UW abandoned the traditional 2-3 alignment down the stretch and saw occasional flashes of improvement but still finished 11th in the conference standings.
During the 2nd half of the year when all 4 of those conference wins happened there were a few bright spots. Jamal Bey started to look like he might become the player we imagined he could be coming out of high school and finished shooting over 50% from 3-pt range. Erik Stevenson and Marcus Tsohonis each had some huge scoring nights and looked like they could be an effective backcourt pairing. Unfortunately seniors Quade Green and Hameir Wright at best plateaued while Quade’s shooting and ball protection really struggled. None of the young big men stepped up as Washington reliably was murdered in the paint all season.
Put it all together and Washington with no more games left to play have an aEM of +0.53 which was the worst in the conference and 176th overall. My model projected an aEM of 14.24 (usually NIT team range) despite the losses because of a veteran core with three former 4-star upperclassmen and 0 freshmen. Instead the team plummeted and that difference of -13.29 was the 2nd worst coaching performance in the power 6 this season only ahead of Iowa State’s Steve Prohm who went winless in Big 12 play.
Add it all together and among current head coaches in the power 6 conferences I have Mike Hopkins as the biggest underachiever and it’s not particularly close. Hopkins’ -8.64 grade is close to double the two next worse scores with Stanford’s Jerod Haase at -4.75 and USC’s Andy Enfield at -4.11. It was a fairly close competition between Hop and Enfield before this season but then USC finally took a leap up to a top-25 team while the Huskies cratered. Meanwhile, Haase tried to enter the race late by losing his last 5 games with what I thought was the 2nd best roster in the preseason although injuries were a constant issue for them.
My data goes back to 2012 so it’s not comprehensive but Hopkins’ current score is the 3rd worst ahead of only Rick Ray’s 3 years at Mississippi State (-8.92) and Eddie Jordan’s tenure at Rutgers (-12.28). Neither of those 2 is a particularly good comparison though because the average team under both of those coaches was even worse than Washington this year and neither came close to seeing success at any point in their tenure.
Probably the best comparison that can be made is Steve Alford at UCLA (-6.17) whose teams were on average better than Washington’s under Hopkins but weren’t outrageously more talented on the aggregate. Alford had a pair of top-20 finishes but also had the only sub-100 mark this decade for the Bruins before he was let go.
Averaging out the totality of a coach’s tenure is great and all but what really matters here is the trendline. Hop’s first two teams were fortunate to be as good as they were in the standings and last year’s team was historically bad in close games. To some degree those cancel each other out. The remaining balance then is this past season.
Has Hopkins graded out as a drastically underachieving coach during his tenure? Yes.
Are things trending in the wrong direction? Yes.
If finances weren’t a sticking point would I fire Hop? Probably.
As much as I want to make it a black and white issue, there’s only so much that can be gathered from the outside looking in on the problem. Cohen will undoubtedly have a heart-to-heart conversation and similar to when Romar was let go she will certainly want to hear a plan for how Hop expects to improve with change being part of the mandate.
An early look ahead at Washington’s outlook for next year assuming no further transfers into the program and that Green and Wright graduate and move on doesn’t show a whole lot of optimism. Without factoring in a penalty for Hop’s coaching score I’m currently projecting UW to finish with an 8.2 aEM next season. That’s slightly above Washington State from this season who are currently 109th nationally and 10th in the Pac-12. And adding in the adjustment for Hop’s coaching score cuts that in half.
That means next season’s team projects to be both the least talented of Hop’s tenure and that to improve it he will have to recruit to a team facing the likely prospect of its 3rd straight bottom-2 finish in the conference. Buckle up.