SEATTLE (AP) — In the view of Mike Hopkins, his first season as the head coach at Washington will be filled basically with freshmen.
That’s not to be taken in the literal sense. What Hopkins means is that with a new coaching staff, a new style and new expectations, even the players that are returning from last year are just like the incoming freshmen.
“I think the biggest thing is we’ve focused on the day-to-day, how we’re going to do the process of getting better,” Hopkins said. “That’s the standard of excellence every day and everybody here is learning a new system. A lot of the players end up being freshmen again because they’re learning, from our zone to our press to how we’re going to play offensively, defensively. I think they’ve made the transition pretty smooth.”
After spending 22 seasons as an assistant at Syracuse and being the presumptive replacement for Jim Boeheim when he retired, Hopkins left behind everything he knew in upstate New York and accepted the job of rebuilding the Washington program after the Huskies fired Lorenzo Romar following 15 seasons.
Romar’s dismissal followed six straight seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance. It was a move met with mixed reactions since the decision cost Washington the finest recruiting class in school history. Of the original group, which included top prospect Michael Porter Jr., only swingman Jaylen Nowell remained committed to the Huskies.
Hopkins also had to recruit those who slogged through a 9-22 record a season ago to keep them around. A number considered leaving. Most, including starters David Crisp, Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle, all ended up staying with the chance to create the new foundation for the next chapter at Washington.
“The biggest concern with a new coach is the buy-in there,” Hopkins said. “I think from the beginning our staff did a great job of really connecting with the kids, working with them, developing them, getting them to stay, that was our first priority. I’m very happy with the guys.”
Here are other things to watch with the Huskies:
IN THE ZONE: Yes, Washington will play zone. Yes, it will be the same zone defense that Hopkins helped teach at Syracuse.
Defense was a major problem in the waning years of Romar’s tenure. The Huskies’ defense was more of a liability that an asset. How Hopkins is able to implement the zone will be important since the Huskies don’t have a lot of size on the interior. A year ago, Washington allowed 81 points per game, 11th in the conference.
“I know the benefits of it. The biggest thing I want to do is control tempo. So if you’re fast, I can slow you down; if you’re slow, I can speed you up,” Hopkins said.
FINDING SCORING: One of Hopkins’ first tasks will be finding enough scoring. Crisp is Washington’s leading returning scorer at 13.8 points per game, while Dickerson averaged 12.5 points last season. But the Huskies don’t have an obvious scorer on the roster that can carry the load or get points in crucial situations. In recent seasons, the Huskies have had Markelle Fultz, Andrew Andrews and C.J. Wilcox. Fultz averaged 23.2 points last season, while Andrews scored 20.9 per game the season before.
“You try and figure out how you’re going to score 70 to 75 points per game and who is going to do it,” Hopkins said. “That’s been one of the processes.”
CONTROL THE INTERIOR: Finding an interior presence will be important for Washington for both scoring and rebounding. Dickerson will be a primary low-post player, but the Huskies must get contributions from 6-foot-11 center Sam Timmins and freshman 6-foot-9 forward Hameir Wright. Timmins and Wright are the only two players on the Huskies roster listed at taller than 6-foot-8.
DIFFICULT BEGINNING: Hopkins certainly isn’t shying away from having a challenging schedule to begin his Washington tenure.
The Huskies’ home slate lacks much excitement, aside from a visit by national championship game runner-up Gonzaga, the Bulldogs’ first trip to Seattle to face the Huskies since 2005. But Washington’s slate away from home features games against Providence and either Virginia Tech or Saint Louis in New York; Kansas in Kansas City; and three straight on the road to open conference play including games against the Los Angeles schools.