It was over in warm-ups.
Watching North Carolina at one end of the arena in Columbus, and Washington at the other. After five minutes, any discerning follower of basketball could tell. There was almost no way to imagine that the Huskies were going to win their second-round game that Sunday afternoon in the NCAA men’s basketball tourney.
North Carolina 81, Washington 59.
It’s almost always that way in the NCAA tourney. Bigger, stronger, faster wins. Sure, the tourney is most memorable for the low-seed upsets, but it’s precisely because the dominant team wins so often that the outlier outcome is cherished and unforgettable.
The fact that the outcome went to blowout form does not diminish the fact that the moment was a significant milestone in coach Mike Hopkins’ heavy lift to get the Huskies from 9-22 to the Big Dance, and then from the tourney outskirts to the final rounds.
The moment was underscored this week when local prep superstar Jaden McDaniels of Federal Way High School joined the Huskies’ recruiting class that included another five-star forward, Isaiah Stewart from Rochester, NY.
The bi-coastal talents had their picks of Kentucky and multiple other high-profile programs, but chose the dorky little program in Montlake, which was in the NCAAs for the first time since 2011. Great Clips Academy had been selected more often.
After the loss to the Tar Heels, Hopkins moved beyond game details to discuss the significance to the program of gaining a spot in the out-sized intensity that surrounds the 68-team field, especially after winning the opening-round game against Utah State.
He should know, having been 16 times as an assistant coach at Syracuse, and three more as a player.
“To be able to win a game and feel it … you walk out on that court, that stage, it’s pretty big,” he said. “I’ve seen it a lot. But our guys haven’t. It’s a pretty cool thing.”
Simple and obvious, yes, but the experience is a visceral validation of program direction under a new coach — Hopkins is the Pac-12 Conference’s coach of the year for the past two seasons — and exposes players to programs at the pinnacle, such as North Carolina.
“The most important thing was for our guys to understand what it’s going to take to win a national championship,” he said. “There’s nothing like experience. This experience is going to elevate and push us forward. You see what the best looks like, feels like. And Carolina’s got a lot. They’ve got great guard play, great size and great shooting.
“To be able to experience this with the young guys, as well as the what the seniors have accomplished, I’m really, really proud.”
With the two 6-9 forwards, McDaniels the finesse guy and Stewart a 245-pound power guy, the Huskies have players that look like Atlantic Coast Conference types. The Huskies will add another five-star recruit, 6-0 point guard Quade Green, a transfer from Kentucky eligible to play in January.
Another player in the class, RaeQuan Battle, is a 6-5 guard from Marysville Pilchuck whose style reminds some of the Huskies’ national defensive player of the year, Matisse Thybulle, but with a better shot.
Good as was the Huskies’ zone defense most of the time, it was most vulnerable against good rebounding teams like North Carolina, which also had quality gunners.
“Sometimes our best offense is our smaller team,” Hopkins said. “You see (in the Tar Heels) the size that you’ve got to have to get to be a top-level program. That’s our goal. They have really good big guys that are great interior passers , and they operate in the high post area.
“It’s a hard cover for us.”
So how has Hopkins begun to draw tournament-class players? Before the UNC game, senior point guard David Crisp gave a glimpse behind the scenes to explain to reporters the impact of Hopkins’ energy, sincerity and charisma.
“You don’t see a lot of the stuff that goes on behind closed doors,” he said. “You don’t see the team meetings at coach’s house. You don’t see the long conversations you have in the coaches’ offices. You don’t see how much coach is there for you. They don’t see the love that’s always there.
“When somebody loves you, you’re willing to let them push you to your limits. And that’s what brings the greatness out in people.”
Before things get too gooey, it’s worthwhile to remember that college hoops is a nasty business. So much so that the FBI has had to intervene to curb criminality while NCAA governance stands by helplessly, collecting millions of dollars earned from the labors of minimally compensated players.
So far, neither Hopkins nor his predecessor at UW, Lorenzo Romar, have been ensnared in the national scandal, although the tawdriness surrounding the Porter family’s recruitment to Washington by Romar in his final seasons had numerous basketball fans seeking showers.
In fact, Hopkins’ rise has been aided by the scandal that has compromised league rivals Arizona and USC. Along with more general decay at UCLA, the Pac-12 has been in a downward spiral.
The conference’s debilitating controversies merely opened a door. At the right place at the right time, Hopkins has blown through, getting his players a taste of big-boy ball. He’s aimed the program at the top of the one-and-done, lucrative, cutthroat world of high-stakes hoops.
All he has to do is stay clean, then get his players tall and mean. While letting them feel the love.
A heavy lift.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.