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Where Do Huskies, Hopkins Go From Here?

Washington ended their 3rd straight season without sniffing an NCAA tournament berth so what should we expect now?

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

When Lorenzo Romar was fired as the head coach of the Men’s Basketball program the Huskies had the #1 recruiting class in the country. However, when meeting with Jen Cohen after a disappointing season she had this to say about the direction of the program under Romar:

“I think there’s been a lot of years where he’s been putting this thing together and we’ve had a lot of years where we haven’t had the performance that we wanted. I just wanted to see a plan that was going to get us there. When you look at cultures of programs, you look at all these different factors it involves. You look at player development, you look at recruiting, you look at the personnel, you look at all these different factors.”

Recruiting better wasn’t viewed as a good enough answer for how things were going to suddenly get turned around. Jen needed to see more following a 9-22 (2-16) season with the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft on the team. We aren’t here to relitigate that decision and I think it was a reasonable one at the time.

Last year saw a similar cratering as the Huskies fell to 5-21 (4-16) with a team culture that certainly looked to be borderline toxic. Undoubtedly Cohen and Coach Hopkins had that same conversation. Clearly Hop’s answer was to fix the culture by bringing in veteran Seattle-area talent through the transfer portal that truly felt motivated to perform for their city and not just to put up stats.

That approach yielded an improvement. Of the many transfers out from the program it could be argued that RaeQuan Battle is the only one who has improved from how he looked in a Husky uniform and that change has occurred by dropping down to the Big Sky. Meanwhile, the foursome of Terrell Brown Jr., Emmitt Matthews Jr., Daejon Davis, and PJ Fuller were all in the top-5 in minutes played for a UW team that finished higher in the conference standings than predicted in the preseason media poll.

Still, where has that improvement really gotten Washington? The Huskies finished just above .500 in the Pac-12 this year and fell in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Washington played USC close this week but finished 0-6 against the top-3 teams in the conference. The five losses before this week’s USC game were all by double-digits. The improved conference record was in large part the result of a top-heavy Pac-12 that featured a much worse than expected and beatable middle/lower class.

The advanced metrics back up that argument. The Huskies right now are 108th at KenPom. That’s better than the terrible 2021 season (129th) but not by nearly as much as +12 wins would make you think. A lot of that improvement was by virtue of going from the 8th to 63rd toughest schedule and flipping a 3-5 record in games decided by 5 or fewer points to 4-2.

KenPom has a “Luck” metric which essentially measures how much better your record is than expected given the quality of team and strength of schedule. Washington’s “Luck” ranking in Hop’s 5 years has been 25th, 13th, 353rd (dead last), 300th, and 37th. That’s a long way of saying that this year’s team (plus Hop’s first two squads) were worse than you probably remember and the middle disaster years were maybe a little better. There’s a difference between the objective quality of a team which is predictive moving forward and win/loss record which is more important for something like NCAA tournament seeding.

If we look at the KenPom rankings for these 5 season periods, which one is better?

Option A: 81st, 98th, 119th, 66th, 163rd

Option B: 98th, 42nd, 52nd, 129th, 108th

You’d probably take option B since the highs were higher and the low wasn’t quite as low. The average rank in option A was 105th versus 86th for option B but both have the same median ranking of 98th. It probably won’t surprise those paying attention that option A is the final 5 seasons under Lorenzo Romar and option B is the 5 seasons under Mike Hopkins.

Put them in combination and it means the last time that Washington has had consecutive seasons winning at least 20 games and finishing in the top-60 at KenPom (what I would call the borderline for being a “good” program) was 2011 and 2012. That’s a full decade in the wilderness for Washington basketball.

In retrospect it’s clear the Huskies landed one of the 5-10 best transfers in the country with Terrell Brown Jr. this year. Daejon Davis from a +/- perspective was the best player on the team with his defensive contributions when he wasn’t injured. They’re both gone now and as it currently stands UW will be reliant on true freshmen to replace them as the primary ball handlers barring another major addition via the portal. The Seattle area puts out a lot of talent especially at the guard position but how sustainable an approach is it to hope that the local talent UW misses on coming out of high school are willing every year to transfer back home? We’re likely to find out.

Back when Cohen was mulling the Romar firing decision I put together a model designed to look at how closely teams came to meeting expectations based on the talent and experience of the roster. Every year I tweak it to try to improve performance with another year of data and at this point I have a full decade on every power-6 team (plus Gonzaga). There are things the model can’t take into account such as pieces not fitting well together but over the aggregate the results match what you’d expect.

Among P6 coaches employed for at least 5 years during the last decade the ones whose teams have outperformed expectations by the highest margins are: Mark Few (Gonzaga), Tony Bennett (Virginia), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Bob Huggins (West Virginia), and Chris Beard (Texas Tech). Only Bob Huggins hasn’t made an NCAA title game among that group but Huggy Bear has been a top-5 seed in the tournament 5 times despite having to recruit kids to Morgantown, West Virginia.

The coaches that have had the highest average talent/experience rating are John Calipari (Kentucky), Coach K (Duke), Roy Williams (UNC), and Bill Self (Kansas). I think it’s safe to say that checks out against what you’d expect.

Where does Mike Hopkins rank in this system? Among current coaches with more than 1 season at the P6 level Hop ranks last and it’s not particularly close. Washington’s adjusted efficiency margin has on average been 6.96 below expectations given the rosters under Hop. This year that would be about equivalent to the gap between Kentucky (2nd) and Texas (15th) or between Colorado (72nd) and Ohio (118th). The next worst score is Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley at -4.08.

Of course, coaches who underperform by large margins usually don’t remain active for long. If you look at every P6 coach that has been at the helm for at least 4 seasons since 2012 then Hop has been just the 3rd worst overall moving ahead of Chris Mullin (4 years at St. John’s) and Oliver Purnell (4 years at DePaul) this year. If you bump that up to 5 years of coaching then Hopkins holds a slight edge over Ernie Kent for the worst performance relative to expectations.

The average talent/experience rating for Washington under Hopkins is almost tied with Will Wade at LSU and just behind Scott Drew at Baylor and Chris Holtmann at Ohio State, all 3 coaches that have seen a lot more success than the Huskies. Having enough talent hasn’t been the issue for most of Hop’s tenure and even this year with on paper his least talented team they still underachieved expectations by 5.49 even if they finished with an above .500 record.

It seems likely that a league-average coach would have been able to accomplish more in these past 5 years given a similar roster composition than 1 NCAA tournament win and 1 NIT tournament win. In 5 seasons Washington has never put together a top-100 offense in terms of efficiency and that makes sense given the lack of a coherent offensive scheme in that time.

The only way to be competitive with an offense at that level is to be truly elite on defense and we’ve only seen it happen under Hop with either Matisse Thybulle or Isaiah Stewart anchoring the unit. Despite his defensive expertise, Hopkins has never engineered a defense at that level unless it contained a very good, NBA-level defender. That might’ve been possible this year with former local star Tari Eason but UW didn’t offer him coming out of high school and didn’t land him last offseason when he transferred from Cincinnati to LSU.

All of the above has admittedly been ignoring the elephant in the room. Mike Hopkins has 3 more years left on his contract at about $3 million each which are fully guaranteed. Cutting him loose right now means eating $9 million on top of whatever you’d pay to a potential replacement. And that’s on top of the $10 million in buyout money owed to Jimmy Lake after firing him this fall.

There’s also not an obvious candidate for Washington to pursue if the job did open up. Mark Pope at BYU has been a popular name but they fell to a bubble team this year. And with BYU’s move to the Big 12 would heading to UW actually be a step up for him? Leon Rice won a competitive likely 4-bid Mountain West at Boise State this year but this will be just his 3rd tournament appearance in 12 years there. Would you be thrilled with Todd Golden from San Francisco (who replaced Kyle Smith after he was hired by Washington State) or Jeff Linder from Wyoming? These would be the names first mentioned although obviously Cohen went with a choice out of left field in hiring Hopkins.

All indications are that Hopkins will be back. This season wasn’t a national embarrassment the way the football season was that is going to inspire donors to step up and pay for Hop’s buyout. It isn’t reasonable to expect UW to support paying out $6+ million annually the next 3 years for Hop and Jimmy Lake to sit on their respective couches. And if they do then it isn’t reasonable to expect them to be able to afford a coach who is going to be an instant difference maker. Then again as some of the data above shows, it might not take much to see an instant difference in results anyways.

There’s certainly a chance that next year’s team under Mike Hopkins gets better. Maybe Emmitt Matthews Jr., Nate Roberts, and Jamal Bey all come back to join with PJ Fuller, Cole Bajema, Langston Wilson, and Jackson Grant. Maybe Koren Johnson comes in and makes a Jaylen Nowell-like impact as a true freshman. Maybe Hop finds an elite level transfer or 2 to supplement the roster. In the transfer portal era there’s a realistic hope that some emergency plastic surgery can be done on a roster to turn a sub-par group into a conference contender on the fly in April and May.

And that’s likely going to be what’s needed because there hasn’t been much in the way of development during the Hopkins era. The only players under Hop to make an all-conference team either were inherited from Lorenzo Romar (Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle), were immediately good as a true freshman (Jaylen Nowell, Isaiah Stewart) or came in as a grad transfer (Terrell Brown Jr.). Development hasn’t exactly been a strong suit. There’s always a chance that Jackson Grant, Langston Wilson, or Samuel Ariyibi make a giant leap to become an all-conference type player but it isn’t where you’d put your smart money given recent history.

Mike Hopkins is a likeable guy. The pandemic obviously wasn’t an easy thing to deal with during the last few years. This year’s team played with a lot of heart and were fun to watch even if frustrating for long stretches on offense. But they were never nationally relevant and haven’t been since upsetting Baylor in the season opener in 2019. There’s no reason to expect anything different until we have this same conversation again next March.

The bottom line is that this was one of the better teams in the Hopkins tenure and the team could not compete with any consistency with the top-25 opponents it played. Due to the program’s and the school’s financial situation, it’s hard to see an off-ramp that is both immediate and plausible. Likewise, it’s hard to see a version of a Hopkins Husky team that suddenly turns the corner, develops young talent, and crafts a solid offense. If Hopkins could pull those levers towards improvement, he would have shown an inclination for it in the last 5 years. So the program remains in suspended animation. It’s not the sort of five-alarm fire that forces the school to eat his contract, but it’s also not good enough to invest much emotion. Call it suspended animation. Or the treadmill of mediocrity. Or Pac-12 purgatory. Or just call it Husky basketball.