All the cool sports shit in Seattle right now is happening at the University of Washington.
Last year, the Husky Men’s Basketball team won 20 games in the regular season, went 10-8 in conference play, lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament to the Oregon State Beavers, and went 1-1 in the NIT, ultimately losing to Boise State. It was a better first season for new head coach Mike Hopkins than anyone had any right to expect considering the circumstances, and ultimately it’s a nice jumping-off point for a team that should finally get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
First of all, it’s crazy how long it’s been. It’ll be 8 years this March; that is far FAR too long between appearances. Even if the Huskies literally have no chance of ever winning the national championship – because we’re not one of those elite teams and we never will be – it’s still nice to be tricked once in a while into believing. It beats a constant stream of mediocrity and underperforming.
This year should be fun, even if the Pac-12 is as down as it always is. We’ve got a road game against Auburn, a neutral-court game against Texas A&M, we continue our series against Gonzaga by playing them in their zoo of an arena, and for good measure we face another ranked team in Virginia Tech in a neutral location. If nothing else, our strength of (non-conference) schedule looks to be one of the better ones in all of college basketball. We’ll see how it all shakes out by the end of the season, but right now you can’t say the Huskies are loaded with cupcakes and only cupcakes!
I would also argue that it takes a team this laden with veteran talent to handle a schedule like that. It’s the perfect storm, really, because we’ve got 4 Seniors who figure to play significant minutes, on top of stud Sophomore Jaylen Nowell, all of whom are in their second year in Hop’s program. I don’t think a team loaded with youngsters could withstand this schedule, not if you’re teaching a bunch of new kids a brand new scheme.
Barring a slew of injuries, this team – led by Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, and Dominic Green – should have no trouble handling the pressure that comes with increased expectations. All of those guys can score (in a variety of ways) and defend with the best of ’em. On top of which, we’ve got a number of quality role players to jump in there. Sam Timmins, Junior Center, had a lot of important minutes last year and should only be more comfortable with his job as a starter playing reserve duty. Hameir Wright and Nahziah Carter both flashed as Freshmen last year and figure to see increased time and responsibilities. Already we’re talking about a team that’s 8-deep, and we haven’t even gotten to the rest of the guys on this team.
The fact of the matter is, I don’t know how reasonable it is to expect too much from the rest. The roster does look like it’s in pretty good shape, both for this year and going forward. There aren’t any glaring holes or weaknesses. We’re 3-4 deep at big man, with Dickerson, Timmins, and Wright leading the way. We’ve also got incoming Freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson who’s got a college-ready body right now; he’ll likely get his feet wet depending on matchups and foul issues with the other guys ahead of him on the depth chart. We’ve got a team full of ‘tweeners with long arms, a team full of shooters; you could say we’re a little thin at point guard, but I’d argue any number of guys from Nowell to Thybulle to maybe even Green or Carter could handle the rock in a pinch. The other Freshman I’d be looking at is Elijah Hardy, a 6’2 point guard who could very well push Crisp for minutes.
As always, I think this team goes as far as Crisp takes them. The good news is, I thought he started to make some strides last year in transitioning from a shoot-first deep threat to a guy more comfortable driving in the paint and looking to make plays. I thought his game against Nevada the other day was telling. The Huskies went on the road and beat a consensus Top 10 team in a meaningless exhibition game, but we didn’t treat it as such. Noah Dickerson sat out with an injury, but the other main guys all played over 30 minutes. Sure, Crisp was 2 for 6 from long range (not a great percentage, but honestly an improvement over what he’s averaged so far in his college career), but he was 6 for 9 from inside the arc, which hopefully means he’s not just looking to jack crazy bombs all year long.
I’ll be most interested in seeing how the rotations are set up and how minutes are divided. Assuming everyone’s healthy, you figure Dickerson, Thybulle, Nowell, and Crisp will all be starters and play starters’ minutes. Timmins figures to be a starting center, with Wright coming in off the bench and besting him in total minutes. You figure Green will be the 6th man – with occasional spot starts, depending on matchups – to give us a scoring boost off the bench. And, Carter and the other youngsters will be wild cards. These things are always fluid over the course of a long season, but assuming everything goes according to plan, it’s pretty easy to see how this team shakes out.
The big variable is how the Pac-12 looks. It’s weird seeing a pre-season Top 25 rankings without Arizona listed. I can’t imagine they’ll ever be bad, but they are young and all the legal allegations swirling around the program can’t be good for their focus. UCLA and Oregon are both ranked, which feels right. Figure the Bruins will be disappointing and the Ducks will be pretty solid. Nevertheless, not having a huge Top 10 program in the Pac-12 would appear to be a benefit to a team like Washington, whose non-conference schedule figures to do the heavy lifting. Being as veteran as we are, I wouldn’t anticipate this team needs a lot of time to gel, so we should come out of the gate pretty strong and ready to upset some of these better teams.
We play all the Pac-12 North teams twice each, so if Oregon remains good, that’s two more opportunities for important wins. We also play the mountain schools twice; while never really all that impressive, they’re usually decent enough that if they rip off a bunch of wins, they could always sneak into the Top 25. We play the Arizona schools on the road and the L.A. schools at home (in back-to-back weeks, no less) so take that for what it’s worth.
I’ll be massively upset and disappointed if the Huskies don’t make the NCAA Tournament this year. Mike Hopkins is getting more out of these players than Romar ever did. While that’s not necessarily enough to be concerned about losing Hop to bigger and better programs, it’s enough to put him on notice around the rest of college basketball. The real test of how good of a coach he is will come after all these Seniors graduate and he’s starting from scratch with his own guys. Luckily, we’re still a year away from that headache. For now, we get to enjoy the fun new feeling of being relevant in Men’s Basketball again. I missed this.