SEATTLE — In some ways, this feels like the first year at Washington all over again for men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins.
So many new concepts and ideas being taught. So many new faces who have never played together.
“It reminds me a lot of year one when we first took over,” Hopkins said. “First you had to get them to believe in what we were doing. Having the success that we’ve had and the upperclassmen … we’re way ahead of schedule that way from when we first took over.”
The difference from this time two years ago is that Hopkins already has established what he wants Washington to be. It was formulated in his first year and cemented last season when the Huskies won the Pac-12 regular-season title and reached the NCAA Tournament.
And now it’s being taught to a group of young freshmen. How quickly the youngsters catch on likely will determine whether the Huskies stay among the Pac-12’s elite.
There’s Isaiah Stewart, the powerful forward ranked among the top 10 recruits in the country. There’s Jaden McDaniels, the lanky 6-foot-9 forward from Federal Way who also ranks among the nation’s top 10 recruits. There are guards RaeQuan Battle from Marysville Pilchuck High School and Marcus Tsohonis, a duo the Huskies hope will provide depth and outside shooting. And there’s Kentucky transfer Quade Green, a sophomore, whose push for immediate eligibility could make a huge difference with some of the challenges Washington faces early in the season.
The Huskies may be replacing four starters off last year’s team, but the raw talent at Hopkins’ disposal may mean there will be little to no drop-off.
“As long as we’re all dialed in and working hard and playing hard, we’re going to be good,” Stewart said.
Washington will again be defined by its zone defense, which despite losing national defensive player of the year Matisse Thybulle to the NBA, should have the length to cause opponents headaches. Along with Stewart and McDaniels, the Huskies will rotate through Sam Timmins, Bryan Penn-Johnson, Nate Roberts and Hameir Wright along the back line of the defense. All stand between 6-9 and 7-foot.
“The zone is different because when you can hold hands and you can go sideline-to-sideline, that’s a lot of coverage,” Hopkins said.
Here are five things for Husky fans to watch this season:
With a roster mostly devoid of experience, the growth of junior guard Nahziah Carter will be critical for such a young team. Carter averaged more than 20 minutes per game and 8.1 points last season, tops among Washington’s returnees. He was a vital role player for the Huskies his first two seasons but seems ready for a more prominent role.
“Maybe some more minutes out there, you know? I don’t want to spoil the surprise. You guys are going to have to wait and see,” Carter said.
Good to be Green
Washington is waiting to learn whether Green’s waiver for immediate eligibility has been granted by the NCAA or if he’ll have to sit out the first nine games.
It’s a huge decision — Green is likely to be the Huskies’ starting point guard whenever he gets on the court.
The Huskies would like to have the former Kentucky guard available for early tests against Baylor, Tennessee and Gonzaga. If the waiver is denied, Green won’t be eligible until the Huskies’ Dec. 17 game against Seattle.
Washington will have plenty of scoring options on the interior, but do the Huskies have enough outside shooting?
Carter will need to improve on his 31% 3-point shooting in his more prominent role. Sophomore guard Jamal Bey attempted just 10 3-pointers last season. The Huskies don’t have much of a feel for what Green, Battle or Tsohonis will be able to provide from the perimeter, but it will be important for one of them to develop.
The wild card may be McDaniels and his ability to knock down a consistent jumper.
Huskies fans get their first look at this year’s team Thursday when the Huskies play host to Western Washington University in an exhibition game. The tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Huskies upped their non-conference schedule a year ago and it helped in landing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Hopkins has continued to demand a challenging schedule, which includes neutral-site games against No. 16 Baylor in Anchorage, Alaska, and against Tennessee in Toronto, both within the first eight days of the season. The Huskies also play host to No. 8 Gonzaga as part of their yearly series and will play in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu in December.
Washington plays no true road games as part of its non-conference schedule. Its first road game is Jan. 9 at Stanford.