The Washington Huskies found every way possible to lose Pac-12 men’s basketball games last season.
They lost last-second thrillers (Arizona State). They lost 40-point blowouts (UCLA). They even lost both Apple Cup rivalry showdowns to Washington State.
As a result, longtime coach Lorenzo Romar was replaced in March by Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, who inherits a 13-game conference losing streak heading into Friday’s Pac-12 opener at USC.
And even though the Huskies posted a surprising 10-3 non-conference mark under Hopkins, that conference losing streak is the fourth-longest conference losing streak in the country behind Longwood (Big South; 16 games), St. Francis of Brooklyn (Northeast; 16) and Boston College (ACC; 15).
For the Huskies, it just isn’t about ending its Pac-12 losing streak. It is getting back on track to becoming one of the better programs in the conference. Their last winning Pac-12 record came in 2011-12 (14-4) when they won the league crown.
Hopkins said Wednesday that he won’t change the overall message to his players now that conference play is here.
“It is a continuation of how we are going to get better,” Hopkins said. “Obviously we played some quality teams in the non-conference. But the league is loaded.”
Here are three reasons why the Huskies won’t repeat their 2-16 conference mark from a year ago:
UW will be better defensively
If there was a single biggest reason behind the Huskies’ failures last season, look no further than how they defended opponents.
They gave up 81.1 points per game, which ranked 332nd out of 351 NCAA Division I programs.
In conference play, that went up to 81.8 points per game. They also allowed those Pac-12 foes to shoot an astounding 49.1 percent from the floor, including 41.5 percent from the 3-point arc.
Hopkins installed the same 2-3 zone defense he was accustomed to while at Syracuse, utilizing his team’s overall length in creating havoc.
It starts with 6-foot-5 Matisse Thybulle at the top. And, at times, it is supported by 6-11 Sam Timmins, 6-8 Noah Dickerson and 6-9 Hameir Wright on the back end.
“Those are the real looks of what we want to create,” Hopkins said. “That is what it can look like in how disruptive it can be when you have that kind of size.”
The Huskies are still giving up way too many points (75.9) to Hopkins’ liking, but they are among the national leaders in blocks per game (6.0; 14th in the country), steals per game (9.3; 15th) and forcing turnovers (16.2; 53rd).
“There are some great offensive teams (in the Pac-12),” Hopkins said. “We’ve got to figure out how we do our defense to be effective in this league.”
Freshmen are rapidly developing
Remind UW fans Michael Porter. Jr. was supposed to don the purple-and-gold colors this season, and wait for the groan.
Yet freshmen that have played — shooting guard Jaylen Nowell; wings Nahziah Carter and Wright; and point guard Michael Carter III — have easily held up their end of the bargain during non-conference play.
Nowell’s popularity among teammates, and the UW faithful, could rival that of Markelle Fultz from last season. He has quickly established himself as the team’s clutch go-to scorer, averaging 16.9 points per game.
Carter and Wright do all the little things off the bench — defend, rebound and chip in with timely scoring — and now have started to earn playing time ahead of returners Carlos Johnson and Dominic Green.
Carter III (fractured hand) is set to return in the next couple of weeks from injury, and should back up David Crisp.
“I don’t feel like a freshman at all,” Wright said. “I have an older mindset.”
Hopkins said last week that those four true freshmen will continue to see extended minutes.
UW believes it is better
Hopkins is a big believer in trusting the process.
“I have learned that simplicity is the greatest thing you can do with your team — be great at a few things,” he said.
He has seen his team’s confidence in understanding, and increasing its work rate within the zone defense, increase dramatically over the past two months.
His team has won its fair share of close games.
The Huskies even knocked off then-No. 2 Kansas, 74-65, in early December for its biggest non-conference win in years.
“That has been pretty much the story of our team this year — finding ways to win,” Crisp said. “Time after time, we’ve made big plays in the end to help up get a win.”
Sure, the Huskies have their glaring deficiencies, which include defensive rebounding and defending the 3-pointer.
But Hopkins likes the improvement arc his squad is on.
“The guys have grown. They’ve gotten better,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got some weapons. We will … keep growing.”