These days there’s one burning question that’s on everyone’s mind with regards to Husky men’s basketball. We all know it. Do I even have to say it?
It’s what’s the fastest way to get across state lines so that I can legally bet my life savings on Washington +40,000 to win the national title this season at DraftKings? (note: do not, I repeat, do not do that. Although if you want to visit DK for other reasons, by all means.)
The actual question is “is this finally going to be the year that the Huskies part ways with Mike Hopkins?”
Washington is currently mired in a 3-game losing streak and is 4-9 over their past 13 games. To be fair, it has been a very tough stretch. 11 of the 13 games have come against teams that currently rank 65th or better at KenPom. The Huskies played Arizona to nearly a draw over 3 halves of basketball before getting blown away in the final one. They kept things respectable entering the final minute on the road against the L.A schools while missing a starter in each game. When Braxton Meah isn’t in foul trouble they have generally been able to stay competitive in the majority of their games against top opponents.
That’s all well and good but this is year 6 under Mike Hopkins. Washington has made a single NCAA tournament during that span and none of the players responsible for that one run initially committed to Washington while Hop was the head coach. Outside of the disastrous 2020-21 season the Huskies have generally been respectable under Hopkins. A more apt term may be mediocre.
Or when it comes to the offensive end the correct verbiage might be unwatchable. Washington hasn’t ranked better than 110th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the Hopkins tenure. Things appear to be backsliding in that regard as the Dawgs are 157th right now this season. The only year that was worse was...last year when Washington was 158th.
It’s possible to win a lot of games that way when you have the best defense in the conference and one of the best in the country like they did in 2018-19. This year the Huskies are 9th in defensive efficiency during Pac-12 play. The plan was to have both Braxton Meah and Franck Kepnang available to ensure there is one elite rim protector on the court at all times but that went out the window when Kepnang tore his ACL against Oregon State in early December. Meanwhile veterans Jamal Bey and PJ Fuller have underwhelmed after starting at the beginning of the year taking away additional size on the perimeter.
But let’s take a step back for a moment.
Those that have read my work before likely know that I have my own model for trying to predict how well major conference teams will perform going into the season and also to look retroactively at which coaches/programs have under or over-achieved by the most. Among active P6 coaches with more than one year of experience my model has Hopkins rated as the worst underachiever of the bunch.
In fact the Huskies have yet to overachieve my model’s expectations during that 6-year stretch. In part that’s because I use KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin (aEM) as the gold standard for assessing team quality rather than wins and losses. During Hop’s first 2 seasons Washington ranked in the top-25 in the “Luck” metric which essentially measures how many more wins a team ended up with than should’ve been expected given their ultimate team quality.
That would be a feather in Hop’s cap except it seems like that was almost entirely due to Jaylen Nowell’s clutch gene as Washington plummeted to dead last in the country in “Luck” during the 2019-20 season. In fact, even though the Huskies finished 12th in the Pac-12 following Quade Green’s suspension they came the closest that year to overachieving in my model’s eyes due to losing so many close games skewing their win-loss record versus the analytics.
Over the last 5 seasons Washington has underachieved by: -4.93, -5.43, -1.21, -11.77, and -5.23. If you need some additional context, an extra +5.0 in their aEM this season would move Washington up from 106th to 71st. Back in the tournament year of 2019 it would’ve boosted UW from 48th to 25th. When you miss the mark by that much year after year it makes it borderline impossible to see success without assembling one of the best rosters in the country. Not easy to do in the transfer portal era without a winning pedigree to start with when players are always one unhappy moment from leaving.
Coming into this season my model had the Huskies pegged for 6th in the Pac-12 but in a closely bunched tier alongside Stanford, Arizona State, and Colorado. Instead, the Huskies are tied for 8th in the standings, 9th by efficiency in Pac-12 play, and 10th in aEM overall. There’s no question that injuries have played a part. Noah Williams has only played about 30% of the team’s minutes. Kepnang has played 18% and that will only drop as the season goes along while he’s out with the ACL injury. Those are 2 guys who have played over half the minutes at their position when healthy. Plus Brooks missed a few games, Bajema was suspended a game, etc.
So let’s try to account for that. In the preseason my model projected a +12.04 aEM for Washington. That already included a penalty for Hop’s past performance as coach. With a brand new coach given this same roster it would’ve been +15.57 (and 4th in the Pac-12). Given that the Huskies currently sit at a +5.87 aEM that means that compared to preseason expectations Washington has underachieved by -6.17. That’s pretty closely in line with 3 of his previous 5 years.
Now what happens if we put in actual minutes played? My model didn’t expect much at all from Keyon Menifield as a 3-star true freshman and he has played starter’s minutes. Meah has certainly been better than you would have expected from a former 3-star transfer who barely played at his previous school and now is the key to the team. Inserting all of those changes adjusts the projection to +8.94. Essentially half of the gap is attributable to the substitution patterns ending up very different than envisioned in the preseason.
It’s possible to argue that the impact is even deeper than that. Basketball is a game of chemistry and having guys constantly in and out of the lineup is a big deal compared to a sport like baseball where it’s very easy to reasonably turn a player’s value into a number. In basketball it’s very possible for a team to be worse than the sum of its parts or for a coach to design a system that amplifies everyone’s individual talents.
We’re now one month away from being 6 years into the Mike Hopkins era. Other than putting Matisse Thybulle at the top of the 2-3 zone can we point to any evidence that Hop is the type of coach who can put players in a scheme that takes advantage of their unique strengths?
Let’s just say that Washington finds a way to be slightly better down the stretch than you might expect. KenPom projects UW to finish 3-3 the rest of the way. Imagine that UW steals an extra win in there and then also wins one in the Pac-12 tournament. The Dawgs finish 18-15 overall and Jen Cohen decides it’s not worth paying the extra $6 million to let Hop go.
After all, only Jamal Bey is out of eligibility next year. He’s set to be replaced by the #32 recruit in the country, Wesley Yates. What if the coaching staff manages to keep everyone important together and enters 2023 with a rotation of Menifield, Johnson, Williams, Yates, Bajema, Brooks, Meah, and Kepnang (who hopefully recovers well from the ACL tear). Maybe Washington finds a way to add another impact transfer to the bunch. That team in this hypothetical is loaded enough and should have enough returning chemistry that Washington breaks through and makes the NCAA tournament despite their head coach.
Hooray! Hang W’s banner! Mission accomplished!
Did that season prove that Hopkins is the long-term answer? Because there’s no way an AD is going to fire a coach coming off an NCAA tournament season in UW’s position. Or else why didn’t you just fire that coach after the 4th year of no postseason play?
But now Hopkins has only one year left on his deal and a rule in college athletics is when you get to that point you either have to fire or extend. Your only get out of jail free card is if Jim Boeheim finally retires and the one good season tricks Syracuse into giving him the job.
Otherwise, you’re stuck with trying to find a way to extend Hopkins in a way that isn’t an albatross if the team underachieves again. And a poor year in 2024-25 at that point seems pretty likely given Hop’s track record without multiple years of a core sticking together. Washington in that scenario would graduate Brooks, Williams, and Bajema plus potentially lose Meah and/or Yates to the draft as well.
There’s certainly a chance that next season’s Washington squad could make the NCAA tournament with Mike Hopkins as the head coach. You have to squint a little bit but not nearly as much as you did this year.
At the same time, it seems almost indisputable that such a ride would be the very peak of what you can achieve if Mike Hopkins is your head coach. There’s no world in which you continue to ascend as a power in the new Pac-10(?) once UCLA and USC leave. The kiddy roller coaster you’re on reaches its apex and then gravity takes you back down.
Biting the bullet and moving on now is going to hurt in the short-term. It’s also a much easier decision to justify than when Cohen made a similar choice to sacrifice the #1 recruiting class in the country when firing Lorenzo Romar. The transfer portal can lead to instant resets nowadays after all. Without taking the chance on a new head coach though you’re condemning the program to further mediocrity.
But that’s what Husky fans will have to continue to endure while we wait to find out if the answer to that one burning question is as obvious to the administration as it is to the rest of us.