Huskies focused on ‘getting better’ at Diamond Head Classic

No. 22 UW is the favorite heading in as the tournament’s only ranked squad.

Washington’s Isaiah Stewart (33) shoots over Gonzaga’s Filip Petrusev (3) in the first half of a college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Washington’s Isaiah Stewart (33) shoots over Gonzaga’s Filip Petrusev (3) in the first half of a college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By Lauren Smith / The News Tribune

SEATTLE — Washington Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins has packed his sunscreen, his short-sleeved shirts, his shorts and his hats, and a book to read on the beach if he can find the time.

For the Huskies to get a dose of natural Vitamin D during the next several days will be a good thing, Hopkins said on this particularly drizzly Thursday morning in Seattle.

But, this isn’t a vacation, he said before hopping on a plane to Hawai’i. It’s a business trip.

“You’re going there to win,” Hopkins said.

Ahead of beginning their conference schedule the first week of January, the Huskies will spend the holidays in Honolulu, and play three games in the annual Diamond Head Classic invitational tournament beginning Sunday night. Their first opponent is Ball State (6-4) at 8:30 p.m. PDT.

UW, which was No. 22 in this week’s Associated Press poll and is 8-2, is the only ranked team in the eight-team field, though all but one has a winning record.

“You want to play good competition,” Hopkins said. “Tournament settings are great because the kids are loving that they get to play three games in a row, not having four days in between before you play another opponent.

“We’re just trying to get better. We don’t look at it like we’re the highest seed. You’ve got to look at it and say, ‘How are we going to get better?’ That’s been our focus all year.”

The Huskies wrapped up a seven-game homestand with a win over Seattle University on Tuesday night, and have won six of their past seven games.

But, losses to NCAA Tournament-caliber programs like Tennessee and Gonzaga, and a few wins over lesser opponents that were more difficult to close out than anticipated have exposed some areas of needed growth before UW begins conference play.

UW’s turnover average specifically — the Huskies average 14.9 per game, which ranks 266th in the nation, and worse than every upcoming conference opponent except for Colorado (15.5) — has been a challenge early on.

“I think fundamentally, limit the self-inflicted turnovers,” Hopkins said. “I like the aggressive turnovers, I’ll deal with that. But, carries, travels, passing — those are things we work on every day, and we’ve just got to get better at it.

“And then obviously defensively we’ve just got to keep growing and getting better. I think we’re active in a lot of positions, and there’s certain guys that just need to keep getting better and more reps at it, and that’s what you get when you play in a tournament like this — more games.”

And game experience, much more than practice, is key to the team’s growth, Hopkins said.

“We’ve been at home, which is great, but getting into a … tournament setting, seeing all of these other different teams in the hotels and stuff like that, that’s always a fun type of deal,” Hopkins said. “You get those competitive juices flowing. I think it’s going to be a great trip for us.”

Hopkins said he doesn’t think the Huskies are close to playing up to their potential at this point in the season, but he’s looking for “progress not perfection.” He wants his players to focus on daily growth.

“Hopefully we can go out (to Hawai’i) and play really well,” Hopkins said. “But, for us, we want to be the best team in the country in March, if we’re fortunate, and we want to just keep incrementally getting better defensively, offensively, fundamentally.”

FAST BREAKS

— Hopkins noted how the recent rhythm of sophomore guard Quade Green, a Kentucky transfer, has impacted the Huskies.

“I feel like the pace of his game has helped the pace of our game,” Hopkins said.

Green matched a season-high with 20 points in Tuesday’s win over Seattle, shooting an impressive 7-of-8 from the field, and has scored in double digits each of the past three games.

He also has 19 assists during UW’s most recent three-game stretch. His five assists per game average for the season ranks 59th in the nation.

— Of the players who have seen limited time so far, Hopkins highlighted one he thinks will become more valuable to the Huskies as the season progresses.

“The kid that I think that hasn’t played a lot that can really help us is RaeQuan Battle,” he said.

Battle, a 6-foot-5 freshman, has appeared in just three games for 13 total minutes to this point. The Marysville Pilchuck High School product averaged 22 points, nine rebounds per game his final season there, and was an all-state selection by each of the state’s major publications. He was The Herald’s 2018-19 Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

“RaeQuan’s ability to shoot the ball is different,” Hopkins said. “He’s working really hard in practice understanding our defense, understanding rotations. Incredible attitude.”

— Hopkins said after Tuesday night’s win the Huskies have opted to redshirt Marcus Tsohonis. The 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Portland appeared in three games this season playing 15 total minutes.

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