SEATTLE — Will Conroy jokes about how his new seat on the bench might give the impression he was demoted. Actually, he has one of the most important roles within the Washington basketball program.
First-year Huskies coach Mike Hopkins wanted Conroy, the former UW star and third-year assistant coach, to sit with the players in the middle of the bench during games. Initially Conroy had reservations about doing it. Then he heard Hopkins’ logic. Hopkins did it when he was a young assistant at Syracuse and it provided a much-needed presence with the players.
“The reason behind it, when he told me why he did it at Syracuse,” Conroy said. “He said because it cleaned up the bench and kept the guys engaged. I feel like for us with a new coach coming in, (sitting in the middle of the bench) would be huge.”
Usually, college basketball coaches all sit on one side of the bench. They stay close as a collective to quickly exchange ideas or make adjustments on the fly. Hopkins, however, chose to do things a little bit differently by having Conroy sit in the middle.
Conroy and Hopkins are two of the bigger personalities within the Huskies’ (13-5, 3-2 Pac-12 Conference) operation.
Both men carry around a high amount of energy at all times. So it only made sense to Hopkins that he entrusts such a responsibility to someone with a similar personality.
Take in a pregame warmup and Conroy is everywhere on the floor. He’s working with players during different defensive and shooting drills. A former UW point guard and the school’s all-time assists leader, he has no issues throwing a pass or two for a player seeking extra work with their shot.
And when the actual game starts, this is when Conroy’s work really begins.
“Imagine being a player, you go and you sit down. You’d be stewing about ‘Why am I out?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ ” Hopkins said. “No one’s teaching me. I’m just watching and my mind can be in a 1,000 different places. But when you come out and you have a coach talking to you…all those words of wisdom have played a huge part in our success.”
Conroy’s position requires him to be a coach, a psychologist, a sounding board and a speaker of truths.
He’ll tell a player what they did well or where they can be better. Or, when required, he’ll explain why a guy isn’t getting a certain amount of playing time. He’ll listen to what they have to say but the team knows Conroy will always be honest.
“He’s there to help you cool off,” freshman forward Naziah Carter said. “Sometimes, people will come out of the game really pissed about a ref. Or they don’t believe they should be coming out at that point. He just lets them know, ‘Calm down, you’re going back in’ or ‘Calm down, be focused and cheer on your teammates.’
“He likes to encourage us to be teammates and be less selfish.”
Conroy also takes a certain approach to how he performs as an assistant when it comes to in-game adjustments.
UW is in a situation where it also has two former head coaches on its staff. Former UCLA star Cameron Dollar was the head coach at Seattle University for eight seasons. Dave Rice ran UNLV for five seasons and guided the Running Rebels to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons.
“Those guys have a great amount of experience. I’m outspoken and I’m loud, so, it can get to be to a point where there is so much flying at Coach,” Conroy said. “I’m all the way down there. It allows me to have my voice and not be all the way in his ear.”
Hopkins reaffirmed that Conroy, during timeouts, is in the huddle with the coaching staff as they review strategy before speaking with the players.
By having Conroy sit with the players, it gives Hopkins a feel for which ones are mentally engaged.
“After games, we’ll talk about who was positive and who are the leaders,” Hopkins said. “He’s such a great coach but has such a great feel with players. … We’ve won because of bench and that’s been a big part.
“His words mean something to them.”