Washington head coach Mike Hopkins calls to his team during the first half of a game against Washington State on Jan. 28, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins calls to his team during the first half of a game against Washington State on Jan. 28, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Experts say UW’s Hopkins front-runner for Pac-12’s top coach

The Huskies are a surprising 17-6 in his first year as head coach.

The Washington Huskies and coach Mike Hopkins shocked the college basketball world in December with an upset win over then-No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City.

Hopkins led a team that won just nine games all last season to 10 wins by late December. He beat his in-state rival twice, has wins over five potential NCAA Tournament teams, has beat three Top-25 programs and has the Huskies thinking about being a part of March Madness for the first time since 2011.

Hopkins’ achievements continue to grow in his first season. The former Syracuse assistant has the Huskies (17-6, 7-3 Pac-12) performing like a team gearing up for a NCAA Tournament run.

That said, is it enough for Hopkins to be considered the Pac-12 Coach of the Year? The News Tribune reached out to three of college basketball’s foremost experts, who agreed that Hopkins should be the front-runner for the award.

“I would say as of today just because of the way he has taken a team that really did not have any history of winning and molded them into a defensive team,” said CBS College Basketball Insider Jon Rothstein, who also tweeted last weekend that Hopkins is going to win the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award.

“They are controlling their destiny.”

Rothstein said Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley was the favorite going into conference play. Hurley led ASU to a 13-0 start and a No. 3 ranking. The Sun Devils have since gone 5-6 in conference play and have fallen out of the Top 25.

In their only meeting this season, Hopkins’ Huskies grabbed a 68-64 win away from Hurley and the Sun Devils.

ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said Hopkins would be his pick for Pac-12 Coach of the Year to this point, given how Hopkins has succeeded with a team that had few expectations.

A strong contender for the award is USC coach Andy Enfield. Greenberg noted that USC is playing well, but that was expected.

“I think for one, (Hopkins) inherited some good athletes and got them to be successful,” said Greenberg, who once recruited Hopkins when he was a high school basketball player at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif. “He’s got those guys to buy in and trust each other. He’s creating a culture in his own enthusiastic image.

“That’s really what it is. He brought enthusiasm back.”

Greenberg said former Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar was “terrific” but may have been the victim of being at a place for “too long.”

As a first-year coach, there can be challenges.

Greenberg pointed out how every new coach must earn his players’ trust. The hope, from there, is to parlay that bond into wins.

“It’s about those key moments when he’s looking them in the eye, they’re listening, hearing and buying in,” Greenberg said. “Through his passion and energy and really committing to developing relationships, I think it’s been huge.”

Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy, who has covered college basketball for more than 20 years and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, said Hopkins would definitely get his vote.

“I have to admit, as much respect as I have, I did not expect for him to turn it around this quickly,” said DeCourcy, who has known Hopkins for 18 years. “I thought it would take a year. Maybe a year or two or three.

“To expect it this early? No. When they beat Kansas, that knocked me off my feet.”

Besides Hurley and Enfield, two other coaches — Arizona’s Sean Miller and Colorado’s Tad Boyle — are strong candidates for the award, too.

Hopkins is 2-0 against them this year.

DeCourcy said Miller deserves praise for bringing the team back from a hellish stretch in The Bahamas earlier in the year.

“I think when you have a program like Arizona, the bar is set a little higher,” DeCourcy said. “They were expected to be outstanding and a lot goes into that.”

Rothstein said anyone assessing Hopkins must look at what he’s done to revamp the Huskies’ defensive approach.

“You look at what Washington is doing in Pac-12 play, all opponents are shooting less than 27 percent from 3 and that’s difficult to prepare for on a quick turnaround,” Rothstein said. “He’s also doing a good job of molding Matisse Thybulle and now he looks like one of those guys he’s had at Syracuse.”

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