Washington starts out Pac-12 play on Friday night when they take on a very tough Colorado Buffaloes squad on the road. The Huskies finished off their 8-3 non-conference slate with a trio of close wins against in-state opponents. The victory over Gonzaga was a little bit more impressive than subsequent comeback wins against Seattle U and Eastern Washington.
Still, this appears to be the best Husky team since the 2019-20 team before Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible and the season imploded. Washington ranks 60th at KenPom right now after reaching a peak of 48th following the Gonzaga win. Joe Lunardi has the Dawgs as the First Team Out in his latest Bracketology which has gone a while without any mention of Washington. Last year’s team never finished better than 91st at KenPom, the year before 100th, and the year before that 92nd.
The Dawgs were 45th after a 10-3 non-conference run in that 2019-20 season just before Jake Kyman (who UW just beat as a member of Eastern Washington) went supernova as a true freshman for UCLA to start UW’s downward spiral.
It’s not hard to see where the turnaround has come for Washington. This is the best offense of the Mike Hopkins era and it’s not particularly close. Even in the year that the Huskies made the NCAA tournament they finished 110th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Jaylen Nowell made an offense credible almost single-handed but the Matisse Thybulle-led defense was top-20 in the country.
The biggest reason for the jump is quite simply that Washington is shooting better. Things could definitely turn around in conference play but right now the Huskies are making nearly 55% on their 2-point attempts and 34.2% of their 3-pointers. That mark on 2’s is almost 3 percentage points higher than the previous best for a Hopkins team while the mark on 3’s is slightly short of his first two seasons. Put it together and the 54% effective field goal percentage is much better than any previous squad and light years better than the Terrell Brown Jr. teams’ abysmal 46.4% mark.
Why is Washington shooting better? Probably because they’re actually passing the ball. The Huskies brought in two players that have led a major conference in assists before with Sahvir Wheeler and Paul Mulcahy. Even if UW doesn’t exactly run a true offensive system now, having multiple skilled and experienced ball handlers ramps things up. Washington has gotten an assist on 55% of its baskets this year which is 87th in the country. Only one other time have the Huskies under Hopkins been in the top-275 nationally.
The defense so far has performed almost identically to last year despite the radical shift from mostly zone to almost entirely man-to-man. And many of the things UW has been good at in the past they’re still good at. UW’s block rate of 13% (top-40) is identical to last season. Opponents are shooting below 30% on 3-pointers for the second straight year.
The biggest difference is that teams are able to score in isolation more easily. Opponents assisted on 60% of baskets scored against the Huskies last year when they had to pass to find a hole in the zone which is down to 49% this year. Washington has also rebounded better this year outside the zone but not by as much as you’d like. The Huskies always ranked 320th or worse in defensive rebounding and that has only improved to 255th so far this year.
For the last several years I’ve done my own form of play-by-play tracking to be able to calculate points per possession on offense and defense for every player on the team. Here’s how each player stacks up in Net Points per 100 Possessions while on the court this season. The numbers in parentheses are their team ranks on offense and then defense
- Anthony Holland +21.8 (1, 1)
- Franck Kepnang +17.9 (2, 3)
- Moses Wood +15.8 (3, 4)
- Paul Mulcahy +13.5 (4, 5)
- Koren Johnson +12.1 (8, 2)
- Keion Brooks Jr. +11.5 (5, 6)
- Wilhelm Breidenbach +9.7 (7, 7)
- Sahvir Wheeler +8.6 (6, 8)
- Nate Calmese +0.1 (9, 9)
- Braxton Meah -9.1 (10, 10)
The biggest takeaway is the giant discrepancy in what we’ve seen at the center position. Braxton Meah has been atrocious whether it’s because of the switch away from the zone defense or because he still isn’t fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered just before the start of the season. That stands in contrast to Franck Kepnang who looks all the way back and then some from the ACL tear from last December. Kepnang missed the last 1.5 games due to tweaking that knee and hopefully he’ll be back and fully healthy the rest of the way starting on Friday. UW can’t afford to be without him this year unless Meah miraculously returns to last year’s form.
The coaching staff has started to get Anthony Holland more minutes recently because they’re likely seeing the same trends that I am. For the entire season the team has been at their best on both ends of the court when he’s in the game. However, if you focus only on games against Q1/Q2 opponents then his numbers tail way off. We’ll see whether he just has happened to be on the court when UW has blown out bad opponents or if there’s more there.
Most players have a fairly even split between their offensive and defensive ranks except for Koren Johnson. It’s quite definitive that Washington has been worse on offense and better on defense when he plays. Part of that might be because Johnson is often replacing Sahvir Wheeler who is generally the leading passer and also a liability on defense.
Washington has only four lineups this year for at least 20 minutes (rounding up) against Q1/Q2 competition. That’s for the most part going to be the level of competition that the Huskies play from here on out. Here’s how they’ve fared:
Wheeler, Johnson, Wood, Brooks, Breidenbach: +22.6 points per 40 minutes (19.5 mins)
Wheeler, Johnson, Wood, Brooks, Kepnang: +17.6 points per 40 minutes (27.3 mins)
Wheeler, Mulcahy, Wood, Brooks, Kepnang: +9.0 points per 40 minutes (53.4 mins)
Wheeler, Mulcahy, Wood, Brooks, Meah: -10.7 points per 40 minutes (22.4 mins)
The two best lineups have been the ones that have Johnson replacing Mulcahy as the secondary ball handler. Wheeler and Johnson make for a very small guard duo on the perimeter but they’re both lightning quick and Koren has no problem getting aggressive on the defensive end and getting up onto his man. The lineup with Breidenbach has been a little better on a per minute basis but it’s with a smaller sample size than that of Kepnang.
The other two lineups have a difference of Kepnang versus Meah and this keeps up the trend we saw earlier where the team has just performed much better with Kepnang than with Meah at center. Washington’s preferred starting lineup is running at a +9.0 per 40 minutes in almost double the playing time of the second most lineup. I still think that’s probably the right configuration but I’m intrigued by the starting lineup Hop went with against Seattle U with Koren in place of Wheeler. That grouping is only a +1 against Q1/Q2 opponents in 13 minutes though so it hasn’t prove to be all that effective yet.